Leadership Lessons from the American Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States, which took place about 50 years ago, was a memorable demonstration of the power of committed individuals to achieve lasting change. It also represents an unlikely and dramatic example of social and political reform of a system from within.

Recently I had the opportunity to hear two veterans of that era recall their experiences and the lessons they took away. They were theologian Dr. James Lawson, who taught non-violent resistance to college students in Nashville, and journalist John Siegenthaler, who served as a liaison between the Kennedy administration and the Civil Rights Movement. As their stories unfolded, I found surprising connections between the Civil Rights struggle and today’s organizations.

Lawson’s and Siegenthaler’s paths crossed during the Freedom Riders’ campaign. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) decided to put to the test a past Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation in interstate transport. Despite this ruling, racial segregation in buses and trains remained the norm throughout the South. Black and white students trained in non-violent resistance were paired to travel through the states of the deep South on public buses to challenge these rules.

At first, there was considerable tension but no violence. Then a bus carrying one pair of Freedom Riders was bombed and the travellers beaten near Birmingham, Alabama. Eventually two pairs of travellers were trapped in Birmingham, with bus drivers refusing to drive and airline pilots refusing to fly because of bomb threats. Only after the intervention of the Kennedy administration in the person of Siegenthaler were the travellers flown to their ultimate destination of New Orleans.

Siegenthaler recalled enormous relief that no one was injured and the incident was over. - Except it wasn’t.

The students trained by Lawson in Nashville realized that, when challenging the status quo, to accept a tie is effectively to acknowledge defeat. So, at great personal risk, they took the courageous decision to continue the Freedom Rides. Siegenthaler tried with mounting insistence to persuade the students to abandon this dangerous idea. In frustration, he asked Diane Nash, the students’ leader, if she understood that violent deaths were a likely outcome. Nash replied calmly that all of the riders recognized this risk and had updated their wills the previous evening.

The new riders encountered even greater hostility than their predecessors. In Birmingham, the police withdrew while mobs first attacked journalists and then the riders. Siegenthaler, a senior government representative, was beaten unconscious. As resistance to the riders grew, so did the press coverage and the sense of national and international outrage.

Finally able to leave Birmingham, the riders encountered a trap in Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested and locked in the notorious Parchman Farm prison on trumped-up charges. The riders responded with a counter-intuitive strategic insight: We have more committed individuals than you have space in your prison. Sending wave after wave of riders to Mississippi — and to prison — the riders commanded a national audience and gradually made the government of Mississippi a focus of ridicule. Their release from prison was eventually arranged, and groups of freedom riders completed the journey that had begun months before.

I encourage you to watch a moving and powerful documentary of these events at http://video.pbs.org/video/1925571160/.

What do the Freedom Riders have to do with today’s leaders? Lessons for today’s organizations may not be immediately obvious, yet they are powerful.

  1. Courage is less about confronting others than about confronting and mastering our own fears. Who has not experienced frustration, ill treatment or unacceptable behaviour at work yet felt compelled to accept it and keep quiet? At such times, it is easy to feel trapped and without options.

    In these situations, our outer fears are often proxies for unspoken inner fears. Perceived threats to position, job security and future prospects simply mask our fears of looking foolish, feeling powerless or failing in public. Fear creates a fog which inhibits our ability to think clearly and becomes self-reinforcing.

    An empowering exercise is to ask “What’s the worst that could happen if I speak out?” and then to examine how that would impact the things and relationships that we most value in life. The answer is most often “not at all”. If there is, in fact, some objective risk, then the next question is “What if there were a threat to my job, position or reputation? How could I handle that?” The answer to this question provides a first-draft Plan B if the threat should materialize. The least obvious yet most important question is “What are the consequences if I don’t speak up?”

  2. The power of strategy and organization. The Freedom Riders’ eventual success was only made possible by a clear strategy (to confront and end racial discrimination on long-distance bus travel in the southern states through enlisting public opinion), and it was implemented by deeply committed individuals. They were prepared to be flexible in how they moved, yet every individual knew and was guided by the strategic goal. The Freedom Riders chose a bold and risky strategy because they believed deeply in their goal and were prepared to confront entrenched obstacles to achieve it.

    How clear and unambiguous is your strategic goal? How concretely can enployees describe what they will see when it is achieved? How can you ensure that it becomes so deeply ingrained that it guides their day-to-day behaviour?

  3. Organizational authority loses its power when it loses its legitimacy. The Freedom Riders were able to challenge established hierarchies by stripping away their legitimacy to exercise power. By dictating the circumstances in which their opponents were obliged to act, they exposed the self-interest behind the highly selective choices of laws the opposition chose to enforce and those they ignored.

    Does the pattern of your decisions and those of the leadership of your organization add to or decrease your reputation and legitimacy? What uncomfortable issues might you be avoiding and, by doing so, potentially endangering your own legitimacy as a leader?

  4. Public opinion, while slow to mobilize, is an irresistable force. The strategy of the Freedom Riders depended on creating situations that would eventually arouse widespread support for their cause and public revulsion toward their opponents. Most people hadn’t made up their minds or, more commonly, simply preferred to avoid uncomfortable issues. Yet when the choice was presented appropriately, fence-sitters were persuaded to engage in support of the Freedom Riders.

    When you face an internal confrontation or a power struggle, who will sit on the fence in the hope of remaining uninvolved? What would it take to persuade them to support your cause? To which of their values can you appeal in order to overcome their reluctance to take a stand? How can you maximize the probability that, if forced to get off the fence, they will side with you?

  5. Vulnerability can be a source of power. People feel an instinctive sympathy for the underdog. Taking the risk of stepping into a vulnerable position can be a way to leverage this sympathy into power. It demonstrates like nothing else the depths of your belief and commitment. It can also be very, very scary.

    Where do you feel blocked because others appear to have all the power? How could you leverage your weak position to enlist and mobilize others in your support?

  6. The power of purpose and commitment. Clarity of purpose was the foundation for the Freedom Riders’ exceptional courage. Their deep commitment allowed them to fully and absolutely rely on their teammates’ support in the most extreme situations.

    What are the moral dimensions of your goals as a leader? How can you make them explicit in order to deepen your own commitment as well as the commitment of those you lead? How does this influence others you don’t directly lead?

  7. Skills-building and self-management were indispensible to success. Intensive, repetitive training in the skills of non-violent resistence prepared the Freedom Riders to handle the extreme scenarios they encountered and built their confidence. This training included the ability to recognize and master the powerful emotions set loose by the extraordinary situations they encountered — an ability that several decades later would acquire the name Emotional Intelligence.

    What confrontations may be necessary in order for you to realize your leadership vision? What emotions will be triggered? How can you prepare yourself and others to experience and process these emotions without becoming derailed from your ultimate goal?

It’s rare that leaders in today’s organizations find themselves in positions of such extreme overt opposition, physical danger or emotional distress as those encountered by the Freedom Riders. Yet there are still everyday lessons to be learned about how to lead in a moral and ethical way. I’ll provide some concrete examples in the next newsletter.

It…seems probable that the most creative thinking occurs at the meeting places of disciplines. At the center of any tradition, it is easy to become blind to alternatives. At the edges, where lines are blurred, it is easier to imagine that the world might be different. Vision sometimes arises from confusion.
Mary Catherine Bateson
Composing a Life