Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Vision, Philosophy, and Style

BOND: Let me move on to leadership. What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy, and style? How do these, if they do, interact for you? Vision, philosophy, style.

WILLIAMS: Well, you've got to be — I think that a great example of style — I don't begrudge style. I don't denigrate as a political asset. I may not have a lot of it. I'll put it this way. It's not a question of volume. It's a question of kind. I mean, I think I am where I am because somehow or another I have a style that somebody beyond, you know, my mother and me and my wife likes, right, so whatever it is, it's a unique, weird style, but people like it, right, or I wouldn't be where I am, right? So the style comes in different kinds and I've never criticized it. For example, people say—well, there's a guy running for office here, Adrian Fenty. Good looking guy, beautiful family, has a wonderful political style. Said, "Well, you're just criticizing Adrian because of his political style." No. I think political style is great. That's part of your arsenal. A great example of political style where somebody had a wonderfully defined political style, but I also think did a good job as mayor and wasn't given enough credit was Willie Brown in San Francisco. Willie, incredible political strategist, probably the best political strategist in California, definitely has a unique political style all of his own, and is proud of it and did a great job running the city. He told me this great story.

Have you interviewed him in your series?


WILLIAMS: Oh, are you going to interview him?

BOND: I don't know if we can get him to come this way.

WILLIAMS: Oh, you've got to talk to Willie, yeah, because, right, he has this great story where this lady called him up at three in the morning. She says, "I need a new trash can. He goes, "It's three o'clock in the morning. What are you doing calling me at three o'clock — ?" She says, "Because it's my house, my can, I need a new one." He says, "Okay, yes, ma'am." He took her number and all this. Lo and behold, two weeks later — only Willie would do this — two weeks later, three o'clock in the morning, he calls her and he goes, "I got you a new trash can." She says, "what're you calling me at three o'clock in the morning for?" He says, "Because it's my government, it's now your can, and I want you to know it, so."

BOND: Take style and what about philosophy and vision? How do these things balance with you?

WILLIAMS: To me, the philosophy and the vision come together in the following way. You know, you — I've given you all these platitudes, I know, but another thing is, I was at a conference and a mayor at the conference was saying, "All — " you know, he was referring to people like me, he says, "All they talk about is management, management, management. Management shmanagement. We need a vision. We need real leadership." And I'm saying — and I came back on my turn, "It's not an either/or thing." You know what I mean? The old Japanese proverb, vision without action is what? Is a daydream. Action without a vision is a nightmare. It's not an either/or thing. It's not like, "Oh, we're going to have vision, but who cares about action?" or he doesn't run around doing things without any real strategy. You need both, and the vision and the philosophy come together in this way. Your philosophy informs your vision. Your philosophy as a leader informs your vision, but it also has to be informed by your constituents. I would say if your vision for the city probably, about 50, 60 percent of it's going to be you and 40 percent of it's going to be your kind of philosophy balanced by, tempered by, interacting with all the input you get from your constituents, all these stakeholder groups, blah, blah, blah. And that's informing your vision.

The same way it informs what you do. What you do as a leader? I always use a 60/40 or 70/30 rule and you know what I mean by that? 60, 70 percent of the time you're basically taking dinner orders. You are a public servant. And you know how people when they get some money, they have to be sometimes told how to treat their help in a sensitive, mature way? The public sometimes gets spoiled and they are brutal to their public servants. They treat their public servants in the way they never would treat someone working in their home or mowing their lawn or something. They treat us like dirt. They just treat us — we're presumed guilty, we're idiots, we're thieves, blah, blah, blah. And this is fed by the media which creates this vicious cycle, you know. So 30 percent of the time you're basically taking dinner orders to your public and you've got to throw red meat out to the public, it's like your shareholders, to keep them happy on a short-term basis, but if you're a good leader and whatever else you say about him, I would put, for example, Abraham Lincoln in this.

A lot of the public did not want to be in the Civil War. They were rioting to get out of the Civil War. Whatever motivation you give him, he said, you know, "We've got to stay in this thing and realize it to the end," and he pulled his electorate along. I would like to think that in some ways I've pulled my electorate along. And a good leader is always going to keep that 30 percent or 40 percent that he or she is doing, there're two or three things that are important to them. Maybe the public doesn't quite get it. Maybe there's tension with the public, but that tension with your public is part of good government, and I like to think that over your time in office, if you start at 80 percent and you leave office at 80 percent, you ought to look in the mirror and ask why. Because if you came into office at 80 percent and you left at 80 percent, did you really invest your political capital? Better that you came in at 80 percent. Maybe you went down to 50. Maybe you went down to 45, but then after you left, people say, "Oh, damn, the person did a lot," or "I really appreciate what they did." I really believe that.

BOND: Now, does your vision change or do visions change over time?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, they do. It's your experience. It's your reading. It's, you know, your interaction with everybody from your family and everybody else. I mean, a great example of somebody who — I mean, I think if you read the biographies of Dr. King, he certainly went from the chosen prince, was going to run a great church. He didn't really think about all this political stuff. He grew. Bobby Kennedy clearly is a great example of somebody who grew through their experience from being kind of a just a little right-wing hack, committee guy to really being a real leader. Wouldn't you agree?

BOND: I agree. I agree. I was thinking about King. I just got the last volume of the trilogy.

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. I remember that —

BOND: By Taylor Branch.