Thursday, December 4, 2008

Characteristics of Good Leaders: Mary McLeod Bethune as Mentor to Barack Obama

As Mr. Obama continues to form his leadership team, I’ve been thinking about my advice in the open letter I wrote him as he campaigned at Bethune-Cookman University. I encouraged him to look at the significant 20th-century educational leader, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, as a role model.

I’m thinking these days about what made Dr. Bethune succeed as a leader, someone capable of taking waste land in Florida and building a college on it. In my view, successful leaders (in government, church, and the academy) need to have the following characteristics, in order to succeed:

1. Leaders are values-centered.

They understand the core values of the institution they lead. They communicate those values successfully to various constituencies. They embody these values.

In a democratic society, these values are first and foremost the civil values that make participatory democracy work. These include the willingness to accord respect to others, to recognize the dignity of others, even (and particularly) those pushed to the margins of the power structures of an institution.

They also include the willingness to create a table large enough to allow everyone a place, a table at which every voice is able to be heard, including voices we want to exclude because they ask questions that trouble us. Civic virtues also include a commitment to work against structures of marginalization and exclusion within the institution one leads. Leaders care about whether the civil rights of all employees are guaranteed, about whether employees receive just wages, about whether anyone or any group within an institution is unfairly excluded from rights and privileges, or marginalized by the mainstream.

2. Leaders are inclusive.

As the preceding comments suggest, good leaders practice inclusivity. They deliberately reach beyond group boundary lines to bring the Other inside, to the table. Dr. Bethune practiced such inclusivity by deliberately crafting a cross-racial, cross-gender leadership team in the institution she founded. She also instituted town-gown meetings on her campus to bring together various communities, to allow members of those communities to interact without privilege accorded to any single group.

In her own behavior and life, Dr. Bethune modeled such inclusivity. At a time and in a place in which it was unthinkable for a black woman to form friendships across racial lines, Dr. Bethune practiced the inclusivity she considered essential to good leadership.

3. Leaders are consultative.

Good leaders listen, weigh and take into consideration the views of others, and, in particular, of the leadership team they appoint. Good leaders never seek to stifle the voices of their leadership teams, even when the team members tell the leader what she/he does not want to hear.

Good leaders resist building a cult of personality around themselves. They do not set themselves up to be the authority, the final word, the hammer ready to come down on the head of those who call for respectful hearing of alternative views. They reject perks and privileges offered to them, when these perks and privileges contribute to forming a cult of personality around the leader: good leaders are not found sitting on daises strewn with rose petals. They are at the table listening carefully to those whose judgment they trusted enough to appoint them to a leadership role in their institution.

Good leaders do not take reprisal against members of their leadership team who fulfill their responsibility as advisors by speaking truly. A good leader would never mount a purge of such trusted advisors, by setting the advisors up for failure, by refusing the advisor access to the leader, by meddling in the advisor’s area of responsibility to make it appear the advisor is not doing his/her work, by soliciting (and seeding) negative reports about the advisor who speaks the truth.

A good leader does not surround himself/herself with puppets, with yes-persons who can be manipulated into doing the leader’s will. A good leader chooses skilled advisors, advisors with integrity, not those with shady pasts and compromised character who can easily be used as tools by an egocentric leader.

4. Leaders are empowering.

Good leaders trust those they appoint to leadership positions. They allow these advisors to use their skills for the good of the institution. They do not micromanage. They do not depict themselves as the ultimate authority who knows more about the area in which others lead than those the leader has appointed to supervise that area.

Good leaders do not deliberately subvert the good work of those who work on their leadership team. They do not see good work and expertise as a threat to their own control or their own ego. They gladly allow those working in an advisory capacity to do their jobs, even when the work done in the advisory capacity excels what the leader herself/himself might accomplish in that area.

Institutions with good leaders at their helms are institutions in which all employees feel empowered, hopeful, energized—not beaten down, frightened, targeted, susceptible to bullying and spying by low-life goons who have the ear of the leader. One can immediately sense the energy of empowerment in a well-functioning institution, just as one can immediately feel when employees are harassed by their leader, not appreciated, taken for granted, and made to live in fear.

5. Leadership is mission-driven.

In everything a good leader does, one can see clearly the core values of the institution at work. A good leader refers constantly to those values, seeks advice from everyone in the institution about when and how she or he can more effectively serve those values, or when and how she or he may be betraying those values.

Leaders are committed to the values and mission of their institution first and foremost, not to themselves. When it becomes apparent that a leader is self-serving or is benefiting chiefly herself/himself and a group of cronies, something has gone radically wrong in the institution and its leadership: it has disconnected from the vital center of its mission. Institutions that disconnect in this way from their mission and its values, and which are permitted to do so by trustees or other supervisory boards, inevitably fall apart.

6. Leaders have integrity.

Integrity is about wholeness. This is what the word means, in its root sense. It is about articulating a plan for an institution on the basis of its values, and then carrying that plan through. Good leaders, leaders of integrity, do not constantly interrupt the work of the institution and disrupt what is being built in line with the strategic plan, in order to shift about personnel due to personal whim.

A key sign of an institution whose leader lacks integrity is this constant shifting, due to the personal whims and petty jealousies and pique of the leader. Such an institution itself begins to lack integrity, when such shifts are permitted to take place at the whim of the leader and no one challenges the pathological behavior of the person at top. They lack integrity because the mission, core values, and strategic plan of the institution begin to seem subordinate to the ego-wishes of the leader.

In my view, Mr. Obama can craft an effective leadership team and leadership strategy if he is guided by these principles of effective leadership, which flow from my study of the life and work of Mary McLeod Bethune. In my years working in academic life, I saw well-run institutions whose leaders embodied the preceding principles and built good institutions. I also saw some egregiously shaky institutions, whose egregiously bad leadership caused the institution itself to begin to topple. Because I want to see Mr. Obama succeed, I hope he will think very seriously about the leadership he intends to model as he becomes president, and the kind of leaders he surrounds himself with.