Gary Cunningham

For over 20 years, Gary Cunningham has served as the top leader of philanthropic, health care, public policy and educational organizations. Currently, Gary serves as vice president, chief program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation. He is responsible for carrying out the foundation's mission to support efforts by the people, organizations and communities to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity.

Does Leadership Matter?

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Government, Politics Updated: February 1, 2010 - 11:55 AM

Does Leadership Matter?

“When we teach, write about, and mode the exercise of leadership, we inevitably support or challenge people’s conceptions of themselves, their roles, and most importantly their ideas about how social systems make progress on problems. Leadership is a normative concept because implicit in people’s notions of leadership are images of a social contract. Imagine the differences in behavior when people operate with the idea that ‘leadership means influencing the community to follow the leader’s vision’ versus ‘leadership means influencing the community to face its problems’.”

- Leadership without Easy Answers, Ronald A. Heifetz 2003

I received a number of e-mails about my last blog, "Our Children in Crisis". Many people were very encouraging and I thank all of you for your feedback. A colleague working in philanthropy asked an important question, “Where are the ‘concerted and courageous’ solutions going to come from? Who is going to carry that torch?” These are important questions.

The answer is a call to action for African-Americans to put aside our individual and personal differences and to work towards collective transformational solutions. It is in this way that we can build the coalitions and alliances necessary to create a better future for all people in our community. There is a need for common agendas among African-American leaders and within the African-American community as a whole. Without this common agenda it will be impossible for us to forge concerted and courageous solutions. The issue of low income African-Americans living in ghettoized concentrated poverty will not be not be addressed using old thinking, methods or ways of doing business which may have worked in the past.

Historically, the African-American community, through much sacrifice, has played a vital role in helping this country live up to its highest democratic values and principles. We are at another critical juncture, as we grapple in the mires of a deep recession and unending state budget deficits. We should each ask ourselves, did Dr. King die so that half of us would ‘make it,’ and half of us perish? Will we have the courage to resist balancing the state budget on the poorest of the poor? Leadership, particularly African American leadership, sits at the heart of these questions.

According to Simon J. Buckingham, “wicked problems cannot be tackled by the traditional approach in which problems are defined, analyzed and solved in sequential steps. The main reason for this is that there is no clear problem definition of wicked problems.” In the African American community, systemic intergenerational poverty has persisted despite a plethora of nonprofit organizations and social services, and decades of programmatic responses. There are no easy answers and people of goodwill have been working for many years to try to address some of these “wicked” problems within inner-city urban America. However, the problems persist and in fact have become deeper and more embedded into the fabric of our community.

Further complicating the leadership question in the African American community is who is considered a leader. There are many individuals who hold positional power or might appear on the list of Ebony magazine’s selection of the 100 most Influential Blacks that are counted as African-American leaders, but many do not exercise leadership in or for the African-American community. In the past, it was assumed that if you are a black elected official your base of support came primarily from the African-American community; today as we have moved from the Era Civil Rights to The Age of Obama, we can no longer make this assumption. In their seminal work, Bibliography of African-American Leadership, Ronald W. Walters and Cedric Johnson state, "There is no era in which black leaders or their organizations did not play a central role in the advancement of the black community, although as indicated in our study, it is also clear that the because whites have access to the monopoly of power, they had exercised far more leadership of the black community than blacks themselves."

In working in cities across the country, I have witnessed fragmentation and polarization within local African America communities and their leadership. Some of the fragmentation and polarization is due to differences in philosophy and approach; some of these differences are exacerbated by competition for limited resources. Part of the fragmentation is also based on egos and power relationships of old guard leaders vs. new emerging leaders. The fragmentation and polarization is a continued impediment to advancing a united agenda to improve the conditions of low income African American people.

In fact, these issues have become so explosive that in many situations African-Americans with different philosophical approaches are physically intimidated, harassed and castigated by individuals with no legitimate constituencies in the African-American community, other than they happen to be African-American themselves. It then becomes impossible to hold a civil dialogue or seek common ground among different approaches. Many of these individuals spend their time treating other African-American people as enemies, but have very limited track records of making a difference for the community in which they purport to reside. Unless bridges can be built to move from transactional zero sum relationships to transformation solutions, many low income African-Americans will remain in a prisoners dilemma trapped in the vicissitudes of poverty.

The role of religious leaders is a critical component of leadership within the black community, historically and currently. This is true whether one focuses on African-American leadership that developed out of slavery, the civil rights movement, the black power movement, or on the present day issues of racial profiling and disparities.

At the same time, there has been a significant rise of African Americans who have moved into the middle class over the past two decades. Unlike prior decades, African Americans now hold prominent positions in nonprofit organizations, government, arts, business, education and philanthropy. This is certainly an opportunity to be seized by combining the historic leadership of the clergy with the emerging leaders in government, business and the nonprofit sector. This could be a potent force in building bridges toward a common agenda within the African-American community.

In a powerful and prescient essay entitled “The Future of the Race”, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornell West identify areas where common agreement among African-American leaders may be forged, "Not to demand that each member of the black community accept individual responsibility for her or his behavior -- whether that behavior assumes the form of black on black homicide, violation by gang members against the sanctity of the church, unprotected sexual activity, gangster rap lyrics, misogyny and homophobia -- is to function merely as an ethnic cheerleaders selling wolf tickets from the campus or the suburbs, rather than saying the difficult things that may be unpopular with our fellows. Being a leader does not necessarily mean being loved: loving one's community means daring to risk estrangement and alienation from that very community, in the short run in order to break the cycle of poverty, despair and hopelessness that we are in, over the long run. For what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of our country, and the African-American people."

This is the call for leadership for the African American community – to find leaders from all our sources of strength who are able and willing to lead on community issues among all people, with a message of responsibility and civility whether it’s popular or not.

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