When AARP CEO A. Barry Rand and his wife met the revered South Africa President Nelson Mandela in 1994, the first thing that Dr. Rand said he noticed about his demeanor was the “quiet dignity” that he exuded. In a statement upon his death, Rand also described the beloved Madiba’s “strong conviction, inspiring confidence, the wisdom of his years and experiences, and a strong moral character.”
Dr. Rand concluded, “He was a man of purpose at peace with who he was and willing to fight for his beliefs. My wife and I left that brief lunch determined to do more to help make the world a better place. He inspired us. He showed us how.”
Few men or women can match the level of popularity attained by the now late Nelson Mandela. But Black History Month, with its vast focus on leadership in America’s Civil Rights Movement, gives rise to an opportunity to highlight lessons and attributes of leadership that set examples for others.
It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Courage in the face of opposition is indeed essential agreed Dr. Dorothy Height, who often shared from her experience of having served amidst male-dominated civil rights leadership. She once told a group of college women that this characteristic of courage – coupled with knowledge on issues – are crucial traits of leadership; especially in a civil rights culture that is still largely male-dominated.
“I never liked to be the weak lady. I do my homework. I get my homework done so I don’t feel inferior or unprepared,” Height told the group of Howard University students at the age of 97. “Women on the quest for equality can’t be wimpy or wishy-washy…It is not self-serving. You are not there as Susie Q. You have a voice. I never failed to speak up.”
Yet another foremost quality of great leadership is vision, said Black History Month founder, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, known as the “father of Black History”.
Vision and inspiration are often exuded from people with a depth of historical knowledge, he indicates in his famous quote: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
But, there’s a key to drawing from these historic examples, former NAACP Chair Myrlie Evers-Williams explains. That key is spiritual leadership that comes from within and is not always so easily identified.
In her invocation during the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, Evers-Williams declared, “We invoke the prayers of our grandmothers who taught us to pray, ‘God make me a blessing.’ Let their spirit guide us as we claim the spirit of old: ‘There is something within me that holds the reigns. There is something within me that banishes pain. There is something within me that I cannot explain. But, all I know America is there is something within.”