Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Values: Tough Love Versus Compassion

BOND: Let me ask you a question about what seems to be a contradiction in some of the things you said. On the one hand, you're the beneficiary of a philosophy of tough love. "You got to do it. Pick yourself up, even if it hurt. Get up and walk away." On the other hand, you also want to reach down and give a helping hand to people who are disadvantaged, at the bottom of the economic order. How do you balance these things? Aren't these things in conflict?

WATSON: See, I don't think so. I don't think tough love really describes what my experiences were. I would say that, yes, my father was very strict, my grandmother was very strict, and we grew up in a home. We were devout Catholics and our upbringing was 6:00 a.m. Mass and, you know, just all the other dogma that comes with a religious belief, so I don't think tough love describes what it was. It was a strict upbringing with plenty of love.

I have a compassion for people. I think I started off by saying I am a people person and in my home, in my mother's house, all her sisters and brothers, seven of them, came. My friends would come and stay over night, you know, "Stay as long as you need to." We always had the place where people could come and when your guests came, you gave them your bed and that's the way we were raised. And there was always food for anyone that came in the door. That's the way I was raised. That's the way I believe, and I think you help people who can't help themselves.

In public office, I can be the voice of those people who are voiceless. I can help them when no one else. And I train my staff that way. I said everyone gets served in this office. "But, Senator, they're asking about putting lights on their street and cutting the trees down and so on." And I said, "Then you refer them to the person who can take care of them, but don't ever say we cannot help you. Do something for them." And that's just my belief, so I don't think there's a conflict, and you call it tough love. I call it a strict upbringing but in that upbringing, there was compassion.