Follow the Leader
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, essayist Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune marks Black History Month with some thoughts about leadership.
CLARENCE PAGE: Parents tell their kids, “Be a leader, not a follower.” Kids want to be part of the crowd. It takes courage and confidence to be a maverick, to break out of that herd and say to the rest, “hey, let’s do it this way, you guys!” Martin Luther King, he was my kind of leader. A good leader is a good persuader. The key to leadership is to have a good idea then persuade other people that it was really their idea all along.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING: I have a dream that one day…
CLARENCE PAGE: Dr. King was a very good persuader, one of the best. For our generation of kids, King was a black Moses. Even when he seemed too patient through the eyes of our impatience he had our respect. He defied Jim Crow segregation, he exposed injustice. He was leading us to the promised land.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING: Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last. (Cheers and applause)
CLARENCE PAGE: All of which raises and interesting question: Do the times make a leader or does a good leader remake the times? In South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “I’m a leader by default only because nature does not allow a vacuum.” Dr. King’s death left a vacuum. No one looked more desperately than the media did for a new black Moses to finish the job. Leaders save media the trouble of tying to understand all of the rest of us.
CROWD: I am…
JESSE JACKSON: …Somebody…
JESSE JACKSON: …Red and yellow…
CLARENCE PAGE: Jesse Jackson won the audition. If he did not quite fill Dr. King’s shoes, he came closer than anyone else did. He flashed rock star charisma and rhymed like Muhammad Ali. “Our time has come” he said, when he ran for President twice. Sometimes Jackson’s time seems to have passed. His agenda seems adrift, his stature has been wounded by tabloid headlines. Questions surrounding his out- of-wedlock child and various financial dealings have left him isolated. He keeps his friends close, and the Reverend Al Sharpton even closer.
Sharpton wants to be the next premier black leader. But if Jackson is burdened with political baggage, Sharpton has a steamer trunk of his own — from the Tawana Brawley affair to the New York mayor’s race, Sharpton seems to divide as much as he unites or multiplies. Some look at that evolution– from King to Jackson to Sharpton– and wonder whether Darwin was wrong: Maybe we’re moving backwards. Maybe there really is a crisis in black leadership. Or maybe the times have changed.
The America I see actually has more black leaders than ever before. There they are, just beyond the civil rights arena, and they’re not just leading blacks; they’re government leaders like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, leading the nation’s foreign policy and national security. They are corporate leaders like Dick Parsons, now CEO at the world’s largest media corporation AOL-Time Warner. They’re superstar entrepreneurs like Oprah Winfrey, and industry in her own right. If Reverend Al is a go-to guy for New York Democrats, Oprah is a go-to woman for just about everyone else in the universe.
But most of today’s black leaders aren’t on TV. They live in the real world, in troubled communities across America, wherever neighbors come together to fight crime, to provide role models for their kids, or just to help out neighbors in need. They are ordinary neighborhood leaders: Teachers, church ministers, police, firemen and factory workers, rising up to “fill the vacuum,” as Archbishop Tutu said, whether by design or by default. It’s hard to imagine a single black Moses rising up again.
The doors of opportunity are opening up, and so is the diversity of our choices. We can shop around, and we are. What makes a good leader today? Don’t ask, just look in the mirror.
I’m Clarence Page.