Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Improving the World through strong teams

BOND: Now, some people characterize the making of leaders in three ways: (a) great people cause great events; (b) movements make leaders; or (c) the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Which of these, if any, do you fit in?

WILLIAMS: I don't think I fit in any of those three categories, actually, because I've gone to work for organizations that have given me a wide avenue and the means to achieve my goals while working under a vision of trying to improve the world, so I haven't had to wait for any of those three conditions to exist for me to be able to become a leader.

BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?

WILLIAMS: I think it's both. I think it depends on the challenge. It depends on where you are in the life cycle of an organization I think in many ways. And one of the things that I believe in building, I believe in building good, strong teams. I think in any organization you're going to face challenges and many of those challenges are beyond the horizon. You don't know what they're going to be. They could be financial. They could be social. They could be political, so the no. 1 thing that one has to have is a good team. You've got to recruit the smartest people you can to be on your team. I'm a firm believer that you can never have too many smart people in the room with you. I hope they're smarter than I am and if you listen to them and if they know that you are working together as a team, it can make all the difference in the world and I believe with that kind of a team, with that kind of ability to work together, you can solve just about any problem because there will be problems in any human enterprise.

BOND: I've always told people that they should hire people smarter than themselves. Some people are afraid of that.

WILLIAMS: First of all, I think that's a mistake to be afraid. I couldn't agree more with your philosophy and I think that -- But in order to do that, you have to be very self - centered. You have to be very confident of where you are in the realm and circle of things and be prepared to take that on. It's certainly paid off for me in my career. I've always been fortunate to have people like that on my team.

BOND: I think I read something you said . . . In the institutions you've worked in, the Peace Corps, here at RTI, is there a difference in those institutions? I read something I think you said that the Peace Corps is one of the few government agencies that follows the same goals now as it did when it began.

WILLIAMS: That's right.

BOND: But is that also true here at RTI?

WILLIAMS: I think RTI is also very similar. The Research Triangle Institute is similar in that; for 50 years, we've been trying to improve the human condition and whether you're scientist, a social scientist or a research scientist, whether you're an epidemiologist or a statistician, you're dedicated to trying to improve the human condition, and so I think that we've been pretty much focused on that for our 50 - year history and as we have grown, it's paid off. That's one of the reasons why I decided to come back to RTI.