“Leadership is not for sissies”

So, it’s been a great week. Is it because I haven’t been in the classroom much? Rubbing shoulders with philanthropists and politicians? Hard to say.  On Thursday afternoon, I was thoroughly impressed by the humble demeanor  and playfulness of F.W. de Klerk. Moxie gets a little star-struck at times, not by A-list actors or musicians (well maybe a little), but face-to-face with a former head of state? I melted.

My question: “When did your ideology change about blacks and whites in South Africa? When did you come to realize that all should be equal under the law?”

His Answer: “It wasn’t a road to Damascus moment, rather it was a gradual change over time. Ask me that in the Q&A, rush right up there, and I will give you a fuller answer.”


Below is a blurry shot I took while I listened to a rather ignorant undergrad ask the President his thoughts on a federalized Africa. OBVIOUSLY, de Klerk debunked the idea by praising Africa for its love of multi-culturalism. He reminded this young man of how difficult it has been for the relatively homogeneous EU to become federalized, a tremendous continent with varied regions would not benefit from such a system.

While I wasn’t talking to the guest of honor, I snooped around a little and learned that he had flown in that morning on his private plane from Naples, Florida (we have so much in common), and now that he is retired, he spends much of his time on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Must be nice.


Before the speech we had about an hour to kill, and since it feels like spring in Atlanta these days, my professor, another former student, and I basked in the sun and discussed black nationalism. (glorious) Our question: Can you be a black nationalist and believe that race is socially constructed?” In other words, if race is a created concept, how can one promote black unity?

My initial response: I thought all educated people believe that race is a social construct, certainly it is not biological, is there something beyond the obvious binary?

Dr. R: Saying that race is socially constructed says something about power. It means that it is something created by human choice. In the case of race, if white people created an oppressive system, then they created the social construct, which undermines black nationalism…

To introduce his speech, Bridging the Gap: Globalization without Isolation,” he told the audience that after talking to us “students” beforehand, he realized that we wanted to hear about South Africa’s radical transformation over the past 20 years. He was right, and what an incredible formative assessment! He proceeded to discuss the role of leadership in a time of dramatic change. He gave eight qualities leaders need to possess to be successful. I’ve c&ped some of my notes below…

  1. Impartial, dispassionate assessment of reality: relentless self-assessment

South African context: The Nationalist Party could have held on, they could have endured sanctions and international isolation, but they decided  to admit and confront the fear that they had failed to bring justice to South Africa, that their policies had led to manifest injustice, and they had to change course. In history, we know that the prospect of imminent disaster has not always caused leaders to change; this is a hard decision since resistance to change is deeply seeded in all of us. We naturally fear unknown, unchartered territory.

2. Take calculated risks.

It is riskiest to do nothing

3. Avoid temptation of pretending to change

Ex: Gorbachev’s perestroika—didn’t want to admit that there was something deeply wrong with communism, tried to simply alter it to make it better, but that didn’t work

Ex: white South Africa fooled themselves into thinking they could reform softly to avoid dramatic decisions and risks.

They had to abandon separateness and embrace inclusivity. Only then could they initiate real change.

4. Real and achievable vision that gives direction and purpose

You need to be able to measure your progress and convince others to come along with you.

5. Outstanding communication skills

6. Good timing

Even if you are right, if you have the wrong timing, it can be ineffective

You can’t move so far ahead that your followers can’t hear or see you

7. Leaders must persevere until they achieve their objectives

There will be far reaching and unforeseen consequences to decisions, and you will feel like you are steering a canoe in a storm. Many crises will cause or almost cause the canoe to capsize, must learn to endure and react

8. Plan for his/her own departure, leadership is not for sissies!

Accept that change is a never-ending business

Biggest take away: De Klerk’s greatest achievement and legacy is his surrender of control

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Loud and Proud: Doria Roberts

New local musician on my ipod: Doria Roberts

Today at school, Doria performed for some high schoolers because she used to be in a band with a colleague /co-coach of mine. Described as a Tracy Chapman meets Woody Guthrie, Doria is a folksy, sultry singer/songwriter. Her website bio describes her music as “a delicious, bohemian blend of folk, jazz and pop.” It says, “Doria’s versatility as a songwriter and entertainer is never lost whether she is performing solo or with her band.” After practice, I immediately downloaded a few songs, and I can’t wait to get some more. The proceeds from “Perfect” and “SOS” are going to rebuild a womens’ shelter in Haiti.

I can’t wait to go see a full show of hers at Eddies! Maybe Coach O can get me back stage…I’d love to pick Doria’s brain about a few things…

Here’s a verse from “SOS”

So now we’re running with this weight on our backs

And we’re watching each step on treacherous and narrow paths

But every time there is a fork in the road

We are just getting used to our heavy loads

And we’re so tired from the choosing that we haven’t got the strength for trying

And I’m so tired of living just because I am afraid of dying

But I won’t give up fighting for this pilgrimage I call surviving

“Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness”

How is identity formed? Who forms it? What are the politics of knowledge? What is blackness?

A colleague and I watched an incredible documentary yesterday on one of the first people to wrestle with this issue.

Check out a preview of   “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness”

Melville Herskovits, a Jewish-American scholar at Northwestern University, was instrumental in beginning the study of African-American history in the United States in the 20th century. He argued along with a few other anthropologists that race was cultural rather than biological, a truth few deny today. He also claimed that African Americans were strongly linked to Africa,unlike E. Franklin Frazier’s assertion that black culture was similar to white culture. Historians have long debated if black Americans have connections to Africa or their culture was stripped along with their dignity in the Middle Passage. Herskovits showed that African culture was connected to African-American culture. This might sound right on target, after all, how could a culture be extinguished completely on the other side of the Atlantic? But his study is more complicated than it seems at first. The documentary brings up questions of the study itself, not the answer to his original question.

Herskovits was a white guy discussing studying black culture, which angered many black people. One historian in the documentary asks, “Does the right to define and describe and observe a people give you power over those people?” Is this “colonization of the mind?” Do white people have the right to tell black people about their culture? How long will black Americans be the objects not the agents?

The documentary asks, “What is “objective study” and when does it become politicized? What happens when the scholar becomes the powerbroker? What are the consequences when we deny a people the right to define themselves? Who controls the production of knowledge, how and why?”

Needless to say, I highly recommend it. It’s on file here in our Diversity Library.