What makes a great leader? How is a great leader made? There is no single answer to that question because there are as many different kinds of great leaders as there are problems in society that need to be overcome. While certainly it is true that many important and effective leaders share a number of the same qualities, it is also imperative to remember that each leader has different challenges that face him or her because of the particular historical circumstances that call that person to be a leader.
This research proposal maps out a plan to study the ways in which African-Americans become leaders in the United States today, looking at the struggles that they have to overcome in terms of the general level of background racism that still exists in this nation. But this is certainly not a research project designed to cast pity on African-American leaders because of the struggles that they have to face but rather to try to come to an understanding of how the particular challenges faced by African-Americans today produce certain kinds of leaders with specific strengths.
As a part of understanding how it is that certain African-Americans find themselves called on to be leaders (and how some of them succeed), this paper looks first at some general ideas about leadership, using tenets pulled from communication theory to help us understand why it is that different leaders choose different leadership styles based on the demands of the moment in history they find themselves in.
This paper also looks at some of the most important African-American leaders of the 20th century as a way of attempting to understand if there are cross-generational values, forms of discourse, and styles of leadership that mark most or even all leaders in this community.
Finally, this proposal describes a research design that will allow for a deeper investigation into the ways in which leadership values and communication skills come together in today's African-American communities to build leaders who are capable of addressing some of the most important issues facing African-Americans today, such as the high incarceration rate of black men, environmental racism, the high rate of single-parent families, and racism, especially by police.
It may be tempting to think that all great leaders are the same - that they come into this world with certain traits that mark them as different from the rest of us. But this is not true: Leaders vary in important ways, and not simply because of differences in their own personalities. Rather, leaders are molded by the political and cultural circumstances of their moment in history - even as they also mold those circumstances.
In order better to understand how the best leaders are those whose personal style meets the needs of a particular community at a particular point in time, we may take a brief look at three different men who were all important leaders in their communities. All three of them are very different from each other, but we should hesitate to say that one is the best or worst. It is certainly true that Niccolo Machiavelli would have - had he magically been transported to Selma - made a very poor Civil Rights leader.
Except that perhaps he would have been just fine. Had he lived in a different time and place - had any of these men lived in a different time and place - they would have acted differently and probably even believed in different things. Leaders are not immutable; nor should they be. Certainly, one of the things that marks a great leader is his or her commitment to a set of principles, but it is also true that great leaders understand that it is imperative to change their strategies at least to meet the changing conditions of the world.
We begin this investigation of what might make an effective leader by looking briefly at three leaders - two of them generally considered to be "good" leaders and one of them considered to be a "bad" leader. This analysis should make it clear why such distinctions should be more carefully considered than they usually are.
Both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi have been judged by history to be good and effective leaders of their communities, men who helped to free and empower downtrodden peoples. In contrast, someone like Malcolm X - or the Italian diplomat and political theoretician Niccolo Machiavelli - was considered by many to be at best power-mad, an untrustworthy opponent who, like Machiavelli, believed that ends do justify means - a dangerous man who should be feared by all.
But a closer look at these three men demonstrates that there are more similarities among them than we might suspect.
This analysis helps us to create an analytic framework that will be used in this research project to help frame the questions needed to be asked to come to a greater understanding of the dynamics of leadership within contemporary African-American communities.
A brief look at the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., should put to rest any ideas that leadership is a mantle that people carry with them their entire lives, for King at first was reluctant to see himself as a leader, as Phillips (1999) describes King's work on the bus boycott.
Martin was something of a reluctant leader at first. He feared that he would take on too much for one person to handle and often related to others that he had been "suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest." "Everything happened so quickly," he said, "that I had no time to think through the implication of such leadership.... I neither started the protest nor suggested it," he admitted. "I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman." Having been asked to serve, however, he couldn't say no. "[So] we started our struggle together."
There may be certain inborn qualities that help to make an effective leader, but King's story (like that of many others) suggests that leadership, like nearly everything else that humans do, is something that people get getter at with experience.
King worked tirelessly, without regard to his own personal safety to improve the conditions under which black Americans lived. He believed that peaceful protests against injustice could change the world - and because he himself so clearly believed in such a vision all of those who followed him believed in it to.
People trusted King to be a great leader because he was willing to listen to them and because he came to the Civil Rights movement with an open mind. Of course, he was not unfamiliar with the often terribly conditions in which African-American lived and worked. He was not in any way naive. But he was prepared to approach the problems with an open mind, a distinguishing mark of great leaders.
The fact that he did not see himself as a leader initially was a part of this psychological openness. That intellectual openness included not only a willingness to try to come up with innovative ways of looking at the problem of racism but also a willingness to reconsider that he might be able to view himself in a different light as well, as Phillips (1999) describes:
While it's true that the people chose him to lead because, among other things, he had no known agenda, he had a high rate of energy, he was perceived as someone who would try to do the right thing, and he could communicate effectively -- Martin, by his own admission, was "unprepared for the role." "This is not the life I expected to lead. But gradually you take some responsibility, then a little more.... You have to give yourself entirely. Then once you make up your mind that you are giving yourself, you are prepared to do anything that serves that Cause and advances the Movement. I have reached that point. I have given myself fully."
King became a leader because he was capable of and willing to listen to those around him who had more experience than he did as well as because he was, later on, convinced that he might help others if he could get them to listen to him.
This is one face of the leadership role that King played. But there is another one that is equally important to remember. King was involved in a dialogue, or rather a series of dialogues. And these dialogues shaped his leadership strategies because they helped him to acquire what linguists refer to as register - the overall social and cultural tones that obtain in a given speech act.
This is essential to remember because King did not develop as a leader of the Southern black community without a cultural context. He talked to other people, who talked to him, and this process of dialogue helped shape his style as a leader.
The most obvious way in which the communicative dialogues that he was engaged in shaped…