A world dominated by so much war, lies, and injustice becomes a breeding ground for leaders, pundits (social commentators) and activists/organizers. These individuals take many forms including formal leaders of organizations, politicians, bloggers, public speakers, journalists, tv personalities, nonprofit organizers, grassroots activists, etc.
It is inspiring to know that some people are courageous enough to challenge oppressive systems, inform us and even organize us to improve our quality of life. Unfortunately, all of these people are not genuine. Some people are motivated by the all-too-familiar goals of fame, wealth, and status. Many of these individuals are intelligent and skilled. They simply care more about themselves than they do the people they supposedly lead. They may have grand dreams of driving expensive cars, purchasing fine homes, exerting authority over people, or having their pick of sexual activity with throngs of admiring and gullible followers.
We all desire some degree of material comfort and we all want the respect and admiration of others. Dr. Martin Luther King discussed this in a sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” Drawing from Biblical references, Dr. King reminds us that the desire for recognition, importance, leadership and “greatness” sometimes leads us to focus on satisfying our appetites for such things, rather than doing what really makes us great: serving others.
We find this drum major instinct among some leaders in the Black community. For these individuals, the goal of empowering Black people is really a noble-sounding disguise for empowering themselves at Black people’s expense. Some start off with good intentions and ability, but like the character Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, become compromised and corrupted by their arrogance, fear or an obsessive need for personal power and authority.
This phenomenon doesn’t just occur in science fiction movies. Back in 2014, the New York Daily News broke a story that implicated longtime activist Al Sharpton as a FBI informant who who attempted to gain information on the whereabouts of Assata Shakur, who was on the run after escaping from prison in 1979. According to the Smoking Gun website Sharpton also wore a wire to gain information on mob bosses for the government.
Once exposed to the benefits of fame, wealth, travel sexual favors, etc., some lose their way. What began as a sincere effort to help uplift the Black community morphs into a desire to satisfy their personal appetites. The desire to serve the community dwindles and the desire for applause, power, comfort and recognition become supreme. Instead of valuing constructive criticism, these folk resent what they falsely view as jealous challenges to their leadership or authority. Compromised Black people/leaders begin to demonstrate some or all of the following behaviors:
- They attempt to silence or attack critics
- They develop feelings of entitlement and elitism
- Seeking shortcuts or alternatives to years of solid study, work, and activism, compromised leaders resort to get-rich-quick schemes, poorly planned projects, and in the worst cases, fraudulent activities or dishonesty about their credentials or past achievements.
- They create cult-like organizations to satisfy their appetites for sex, money, recognition and unchecked power and influence.
- They are reluctant to collaborate with others or seek outside expertise and opinion; they NEED to lead or run everything, even things for which they are unqualified.
- Because of their obsessive desire for money and power, they are easily seduced to become paid government agents/informants.
- They take high-paying jobs, occupy important positions or associate with people/organizations which oppress their people and compromise their leadership.
Such behavior leads the larger Black community to great disillusionment, failure and deception. We have the right and responsibility to protect ourselves against such fraudulent and compromised individuals. Fortunately, there are things we can do to protect ourselves These things take the form of questions or things to look for:
- Are they qualified? Simply put, you want to know if someone is qualified to do the work they proclaim to do, either through education, life experience or both. And if the person blatantly lies about their qualifications, be wary of them. People who truly care about community empowerment will do the work/study necessary to provide excellent service.
- Do they display humility and gratitude? Authentic leaders don’t wear their resumes on their sleeves or repeatedly brag about their accomplishments Other people speak about them with admiration and respect or recall their accomplishments. Authentic leaders should thank the community and individuals for their support. Here’s an interesting bit of advice. Pay attention to their use of pronouns. Do they always use the words “me” and I”?” Or, do you hear them often say “We,” “us,” and “our?” This often provides clues to whether a person is self-absorbed or whether they focus on the collective. As no one is perfect and we all make errors in judgement or fall short, you also want to know if this person is accountable. Do they apologize when they fall short, or do they blame others and attempt to shift responsibility away from themselves? Do they admit when they don’t know something, or do they avoid and attempt to refocus the question?
- You want signs that the person has successfully collaborated with others in the past. No leader can be effective without working with others. This means there should be evidence of teamwork and collaboration in a person’s background. If a person does everything him or herself, this is a sign of trouble.
- The person should have a documented background of successful leadership and activism: This separates genuine leaders from “talking heads” and mere social commentators. What organization did they lead or belong to? What role did they play in the organization? Did they bring honor and success to the organization, or shame and failure? This research should reveal a general record of jobs well done, effective organizing, and good reports from those the person worked with in the community. Compromised leaders will often display evidence of stealing, poor decision-making, dishonesty, self-absorption or other negative behaviors in their past experiences. Good or bad leaders are not born overnight.
- Who are their mentors? Effective leaders are typically guided and advised by wise and credible mentors. The politics, reputation, and past activities of mentors also reveals things to us about those they advise. Compromised leaders will often have no mentors or have very questionable ones with shaky backgrounds/beliefs themselves. Also, mentors who are credible can and will vouch for those they mentored. If a person’s mentors are unwilling to vouch for them, or if they speak negatively about them, this naturally raises suspicions.
- What do the people who live in the community where this person organized in the past have to say about them? If someone did organizing in a particular city, people in that community should have favorable memories of this person and their work.
- Do they have a plan, program or platform designed to improve conditions in our community? Anyone can give an opinion or complain about injustice. Leaders distinguish themselves by providing relevant analysis, methods, strategies, and plans to address important issues and solve problems. In addition, you should see evidence of this person implementing these methods or solutions.
- Do they just proclaim and pontificate, or do they educate and inform? Genuine leaders work hard to teach and inform the masses to do better and be better. They expose societal and in-house contradictions, teach people how oppressive systems work, and equip people with the knowledge or tools to challenge injustice and discard self-defeating thoughts and behavior. To do this of course, the leader must have this knowledge or skill set themselves.
- Do they see themselves as THE leader of Black people, or one of many? The limits of the messiah complex are self-explanatory and well-known. but here’s another point to consider: Genuine leaders work to develop and produce other people to assume leadership, because they realize no one person (regardless of their talent or intelligence) can truly empower or liberate millions of Black people!
If you ask yourself these questions and do the proper research, you will most likely be able to distinguish genuine and effective leaders from those who are compromised, incompetent, or fraudulent. Doing this will protect you from wasting time, money and loyalty to those who don’t deserve them. Taking this approach does not make you a enemy of the people, but a wise and informed person.
Finally, do not assume that wide popularity, a full schedule of speaking engagements, or recognition in social or traditional media makes a person authentic or effective as a leader or activist. Sometimes these are indicators of legitimate accomplishment. Sometimes, this just means someone has an effective publicist and marketing strategy. It could also mean that the people supporting this person are uninformed and gullible sheeple that drank the propaganda Kool-Aid! As powerful Hip Hop artist Immortal Technique says in his song, “Industrial Revolution, “Cause if you go platinum, it’s got nothing to do with luck, it just means that a million people are stupid as fuck.”
While the following video targets fraudulent and compromised white “truth leaders” in the United States, you will find some of the information relevant to Black leadership as well:
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.