Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

What Makes a Great Leader?

BOND: Let me ask you — some people categorize the making of leaders in three ways. Number one, great people cause great events. Number two, movements make leaders. And number three, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the time. Which of these, if any, fits you? Great people cause great events. Movements make leaders. The confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the time.

WILLIAMS: Yeah — and I like that and I've heard that classification. I like it more than the simple "Is it society or the great person?" theory. And if, you know, I were to say — and with me, it isn't really a combination. It's clearly not one dominant person coming in influencing events. That's not true and it's not a movement. A little bit of it is the movement offering up someone. There is a movement in the city for truth in lending, fiscal soundness, faith and credit, all these kind of terms of art that I came to represent, so a little bit of it was that, but a lot of it was — hopefully, I wasn't drunk like General [Ulysses S.] Grant but I was out in the right time and confluence of events, I was there at the moment.

BOND: The government was broken, you demonstrated you could fix it, and — so this is — in some ways, we couldn't have predicted the government would go broke. Maybe if we'd paid more attention. And we couldn't predict that the Control Board would be set up and you would become its head and we couldn't predict that you'd be the success that you were, so this is a confluence of unpredictable events, creates a leadership figure appropriate for the times. So — now, is your legitimacy as a leader tied to your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or your ability to articulate a vision, an agenda? These are sort of the same thing, but what makes you legitimate as a leader? You become the mayor. Here you are. How do you maintain legitimacy? It's not a matter, I don't think, of style because you brought this style with you. How do you maintain legitimacy?

WILLIAMS: Well, your leadership will take on the form and function and characteristics of your circumstances, so if you're in business, it'd be one thing. In a faith situation, it'd be another. And a mayor, you're the leader because you're demonstrating results in your different roles. And if you're not demonstrating results, ultimately in your different roles you represent, then you're not going to be successful.

So for me, one role is as the mayor, you're the steward of the city. So how are the resources of the city doing? Oh, they're doing good. You're the chief constable of the city. How's public safety doing? Generally doing pretty good. It's going in the right direction. Crime's going down. You're the chief cheerleader for the city. How's investment going? Oh, $35 billion dollars in new investment. Oh, definitely doing good there. You're the leader of getting the city rallied around big things, make the city feel better for itself, you know. I mean, there're a lot of things that have happened in that capacity and then, ultimately, it's, can you get the city focused on some things they didn't even think of before but comes to agree are good things. I would say, for example, the Anacostia Waterfront is an example of that.