Rethinking Black Leadership

No one can pinpoint exactly when the ground shifted, when it became possible for a black American male to join the gods of the corporate universe. Like the moment when darkness yields to dawn, it crept up quietly, largely unperceived. We awakened and a new day had come. But if we must mark our awareness of that day’s arrival, put down Jan. 1, 1999, the day Franklin Raines, former director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, took over as chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae, becoming the first African-American to head a major American corporation. Since then, few have fared as well. A. Barry Rand was named head of Avis in November 1999 but didn’t survive the transfer of ownership in 2001. Lloyd Ward, named top man at Maytag, also in 1999, lasted little more than a year before walking away amid reports of conflict with his board. But last year the ground shifted again, and suddenly it became significantly less lonely at the top, as three black men prepared to take their place at the pinnacle of some of America’s most important companies (page 44).

As miracles go, this corporate trifecta does not exactly rank with the parting of the sea. But that a group of talented executives who are also black could so nonchalantly take the reins of three huge companies says something important about the expansion of opportunity (at least for a few) in an arena that, until very recently, might as well have hung blacks not allowed signs on the door. And it’s not just the corporate world that is embracing authority figures who happen to be black. Washington has grown accustomed to seeing the president take foreign-policy lessons from two African-Americans, and the faux-real world of daytime television is filled with the likes of Joe Brown and Greg Mathis–black judges, whose race seems almost incidental, telling folks of all colors how to live their lives. Indeed, there is no major area of American life these days, from education to politics to religion, where society is not coming to terms with a new black leadership class–one whose credentials, in many cases, have very little to do with their color, and one whose very existence raises questions about the continuing viability of the “black leadership” model of old.

Under the old model, a handful of leaders (virtually all male and generally preachers–but often politicians, educators or some fusion of the three) supposedly represented the black community. Over the past several decades, as blacks have entered and conquered a host of previously forbidden realms, thanks in large measure to the civil-rights movement’s storied successes, the very idea that one person (or handful of “leaders”) could speak on all matters for entire racial groups has begun to seem increasingly silly. So even as the Rev. Al Sharpton maneuvers in the apparent hope of replacing the Rev. Jesse Jackson as black leader numero uno, it becomes less and less clear just what the title represents. For never before have blacks spoken with so many voices. And in that diversity lies both opportunity and confusion.

The confusion stems in part from uncertainty over just how to classify many of the members of this new leadership class. Are they “black leaders,” or are they something else? Corporate leaders whose color is irrelevant? Political leaders who happen to have mostly black constituencies? And whom exactly do they speak for, other than themselves? When U.S. Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee insists on being seen as a leader rather than a “black” leader, does that represent progress (page 50)? Or is he simply signaling his intention to abandon the “black community” in pursuit of personal ambitions?

Such questions miss an important point: that in this age of falling racial barriers our leaders will have to be as diverse as we are. Some will be preoccupied with the continuing battle for equality; some will focus primarily on other things. And we, of course, will judge them in line with our own particular preoccupations. For people who insist on seeing blacks as a monolith, the notion that blacks are as complicated and varied as whites may take some getting used to–but to argue otherwise would be to assume that we are lesser (more simple) human beings.

The opportunities in this new diversity are easy to see, though not all are necessarily easy for everyone to grasp. Certainly, on an individual level our new corporate champions are doing very well. They have won acclaim, wealth and access to the kind of power that even a pharaoh might envy. But why should an ordinary person care about that? Even Jesse Jackson, who is demanding that Fortune 500 companies give more business to blacks and Latinos, seems uncertain whether having a black CEO across the negotiating table would make any difference to his campaign. He will treat black CEOs, he says, like any other CEOs–though he would hope they would be more sensitive.

Obviously the relationship of such CEOs to the community–however that community is defined–will be dictated not only by their sensitivity but by their professional responsibilities and their individual consciences. But ultimately the opportunity they present may lie less in what they do than in what they represent. At the very least they offer a chance to move society toward a new definition, an expanded definition, of what it means to be black, and most particularly of what it means to be black and male–which is something this nation desperately needs.

When asked about his dream for the future, a very bright 11-year-old California boy said he hoped to become a lawyer, but his buddies had other ideas: “They tell me I will end in jail.” He went on to explain that his father, whom he barely knew, was in prison for armed robbery. That young man’s experience is a microcosm of what millions of black boys are being told daily, not just by their friends but by virtually everyone around them. And in this society, which experts estimate will put one of every four of them behind bars, such suggestions have a great deal of force. Such dreary statistics are one reason I think we need a new set of rules for success for black men (page 52).

If nothing else, the successes of such high-profile figures as the new black corporate titans offer boys, such as the one from California, a glance at a possible future and a loftier path–at something better than the young man’s buddies presume will be his fate. Those commanding, towering figures are beacons lighting the path to roads not yet taken. But they are something else as well. They are a reminder to all of us that America is at its best when talent triumphs over precedent, when preconceptions make way for excellence–in whatever package excellence arrives.

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