Demanding Quality Leadership
It is commonly said that African Americans suffer from a lack of leadership. Yet, whenever someone begins to wield significant power, too often the campaign to unseat him or her is not far behind.
Certainly, no one should be allowed to set an agenda or lead without censure. But rather than tearing folks down indiscriminately, we ought to demand quality leadership, develop mechanisms for assessing performance and weed out those who fail to measure up.
Rather than lamenting the absence of a singular Black leader — an unrealistic if not unwise goal to begin with, given our diversity — shouldn’t we acknowledge that there are several nationally recognized personalities among us who have earned the right to be called leaders? Though each may be working on a specific agenda, they share a fundamental commitment to pursuing a better quality of life for all African Americans.
William H. Gray III, the subject of this edition’s cover story, is one such person. I remember the first time I saw Gray in person. My Bryn Mawr College buddies and I got up early one Sunday morning to visit Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. We were eager to check out the renowned Rev. Gray, an emerging national leader who at that time was a newly elected U.S. congressman. I do not recall the content of Gray’s sermon that morning. But I’ll never forget feeling that his confidence, intellect, conviction of purpose and persuasiveness were the type that enable people to see things they might otherwise miss. He exhibited personality traits that move people into action. Gray, I concluded, was a brother who deserved my attention. Later, I realized that the rest of the country was watching him too.
In 1991, I was shocked to learn that Gray was leaving his powerful position as Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives to head the United Negro College Fund. What a huge loss, I thought, fearing the rumors that his premature resignation was not of his own making might be true. I was glad that his alternative career choice was to lead The College Fund, but I hoped he was sincere in his desire to help Black students, and not simply looking for a stepping stone toward a more prestigious opportunity.
Nearly a decade later, Gray has led the UNCF to become bigger, bolder and more powerful than ever. The $1 billion agreement he struck for the Fund with Microsoft earlier this month, to provide scholarships for Black, Latino and Native American college students, is an indication of just how powerful and influential he has become. It also is evidence of his proclivity to reach for and weigh in on projects that affect people who are well outside of the UNCF’s immediate orbit.
Like all human beings, Gray has his faults. Despite his oratory eloquence and marketing brilliance, one-on-one conversations with him often transmute into lectures or sermons. His critics characterize him as a rude, arrogant and a tyrannical bully. During the Black Issues interview (see page 22), he admitted that his no-nonsense style unnerves some people. But, in his view, that’s their problem. And judging by the resounding support he enjoys from the UNCF board, his ability to deliver the goods for The College Fund far outweights the disagreeable aspects of his personality.
Hopefully, Gray will continue to lead the cause of Blacks in higher education for many years to come. Hopefully, he and those with whom he shares the higher education platform will find ways to exploit their collective strength and keep their differences to a minimum. Hopefully, he will groom others to succeed him. And hopefully, we’ll realize that, while his style may not always agree with us and must occasionally be challenged, the quality of his leadership — as measured by who and how many folks his efforts benefit — is something the country, and African Americans in particular, desperately need.
Cheryl D. Fields
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