Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Becoming a Leadership Figure

BOND: Now, going back to leadership and your education, in high school people think of you as a class leader, a smart kid with good grades who sometimes could drift away into his own thoughts. Outside high school, you have various jobs and then at Santa Clara, you're a leader in the anti-Vietnam protests. Is that a moment or close to a moment when you say, "I am a leader. I'm doing things and people are following me. I'm setting the pace for others"? When do you begin to think of yourself as a leadership figure?

WILLIAMS: Ever since I was in grade school I was always elected to class something or another, grade school through — when I was in the military, I was a flight leader and the squadron commander and the student council leader at the academy prep school, and then at Santa Clara, and I went — but I think the difference is someone can be elected leader because you like them and you like — my big thing was a sense of humor. That's what me carried through was I always had a joke for every occasion and you know, imitations of teachers and things, so I always had a group that would hang out with me at lunch and I would do imitations of whatever, you know, and so that was my big calling card and to me, that's leading but it's not really leading. I don't feel I was really leading in a sense of actually doing something until I was on the city council, the local Board of Aldermen in New Haven. I actually felt I was accomplishing something there and not just being impresario host with the most, you know.

BOND: I understand. That strikes me as the one of the most unusual parts of your resume, that after a short time in New Haven, that you offer for the Board of Aldermen and you get elected. So surely you must've thought to yourself "I can do this job better than these other people who are doing it, or the other people who are running for the job," so you begin to think of yourself as a leadership figure, at least by then.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I did by then. Yeah, I did. And I felt that I could make an impact notwithstanding the fact that — where have I heard this before? I didn't own a house in New Haven, and I hadn't been there a long time.

BOND: Yes, too new in town. You're a carpetbagger. But having had that experience, it must've made the Washington experience at least more understandable.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's why I never in my wildest — people don't believe this. If you ask Kevin Chavous, he will to this day I'm sure not believe me, God bless his heart, but I did not — in my wildest dreams, I had no, never had any expectation or even conception that I would be [mayor]. When I came here, I came here to work in President Clinton's subcabinet. I had no expectation that I would be mayor of the city. I mean, good Lord. The only reason I got into the city was because I was over at the Department of Agriculture, this massive organization at the time. We had a cash flow of around $80 billion dollars — that's the kind of budget you managed there as a CFO. And meanwhile, the city was tottering and Michael Rogers, who was the city administrator, and Jeff [Jeffrey] Thompson, who had become a friend through his work with Johnnie Booker, a lady. I don't know if you've met her, she did a lot of minority business development —

BOND: Yes, I think so.

WILLIAMS: — over with the savings and loan when they all failed and he did a lot of work with them — and so I got to know him.

He said, "You know, well, you really ought to come and work for the District as a CFO of the District. The Control Board is looking for a CFO and you ought to go over and talk to Marion Berry, Mayor Berry. And I said, "Are you crazy? Why would I want to go and work for the District? The place is like cratering." And then I said to myself, "You know what, maybe you ought to go over because it would be exciting. There's a sense of urgency. [It's] definitely broke, and if I go over there and I don't succeed, everybody will say, 'Well, nobody could've succeeded,' but if I go over there and if by small chance I actually make it, who knows what'll happen?" So I went over and it was a good decision.