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An Open Letter to the Men of Morehouse

Background

As the Fall 2020 semester drew to a close, I had cause to reflect upon my experience as a guest lecturer engaged in Introduction to Black Leadership (HLS 111-03B). As some of you know, this course was designed to provide students with a broad overview of the theory and practice of leadership as manifested in African American history and culture. Towards this end, we sought to provide them with diverse experience-based and interdisciplinary perspectives that in some instances overlapped and sometimes stood in direct opposition to one another. [1] The pedagogical intent was to acquaint them with a wide range of viewpoints on the subject of African American leadership and through this course, create a space for them to formulate and share their own perspectives as they matriculated and eventually prepared themselves to take their place in the world as “Morehouse Men.”

With that broad goal in mind, I recalled a specific class discussion on the “five somethings of leadership” when they each presented a description of the ideal leader and the essential qualities and characteristics they thought he or she should possess. I was heartened by their respectful exchange of opinions and insights and the manner in which they each presented their different points of view. For me, this was more than empty intellectual banter. It reflected the kind of thoughtful introspection and soul-searching that goes to the heart of our educational enterprise which is to help them prepare to emerge as dynamic leaders in their chosen professions and communities. In that particular moment, I resigned myself to “active listening” as I thought to better understand their thought processes and the rationales for the conclusions they had drawn. But as the end of the semester approached, I thought I might share some final thoughts with them. I offered this input in the spirit of brotherhood as points of clarification and summative remarks for their consideration as they completed this course and gave shape and substance to their required term papers. Moreover, I hoped this open letter would be received as things that I dared not leave unsaid; things that I hoped they will never forget.                                                                                                                                                                                            

Dear Men of Morehouse:

I sincerely hope that your enrollment in this course marks the beginning of a lifelong effort to deepen your understanding of the “Morehouse model of socio-ethical leadership” and your appreciation for its profound relevance and applications in the world; a world that is in such dire need of responsible and responsive leaders. It is to this particular subject that I now turn my attention. But first, it is always useful to define one’s terms. In brief, I am specifically defining the term model as “a system or thing used as an example to follow, emulate or surpass.” I maintain that as a model, this “thing” of ours is both definable and knowable and is certainly worthy of thoroughgoing consideration. This celebrated Morehouse model is real and recognizable. It is not abstract or contrived. Nor should it be distorted and reduced to obscure over-simplifications and mnemonic devices. 

That is why I take issue with some who use the term “Morehouse Mystique” to describe individual and organizational qualities that are erroneously believed to be difficult or somehow impossible to grasp. On the contrary, the exemplary individual and organizational leadership qualities that we have been discussing this semester are neither shrouded in mystery nor difficult to understand or explain. We have only to strip this so-called “mystique” of its self-serving and elitist usages and connotations. And when we do, we are more inclined to give this subject careful historical analysis and serious contemplation. Lest we forget, the Morehouse model of socio-ethical leadership is comprised of identifiable and tractable personal and organizational qualities These qualities are indeed knowable. And once we accept this premise, we are then truly free to accept or reject that model, in whole or in part.

From a historical perspective, the Morehouse model of socio-ethical leadership grew out of particular and identifiable social conditions and dynamics.  Determined free men of color, in collaboration with high-minded white men of the American Baptist Home Mission sought to educate a generation of recently emancipated Black young men. Their collective vision amounted to a grand experiment involving a question that they remarkably dared to ask and answer in a racially oppressive society (1867). Their experimental hypothesis might be framed something like this: What would happen if we gathered a group of purpose-driven faculty to educate a group of highly-motivated students of unlimited potential in an organizational atmosphere and learning environment marked by high expectation and mutually beneficial and brotherly support? What results might we expect and how might these promising young men impact and advance the common good? 

Servant Leadership in the Morehouse Model of Leadership Development

In one of my earlier lectures, I spoke about “servant leadership in the African American scholastic tradition” and discussed the role of “the talented tenth,” then and now. The term you will recall, was popularized in 1903 by the eminent scholar, W.E.B. DuBois. But in truth, the term originated in 1896 with Henry Lyman Morehouse (who helped to establish and advance the institution we know today as Morehouse College). Henry L. Morehouse noted:

In the discussion concerning Negro education we should not forget the talented tenth man. An ordinary education may answer for the nine men of mediocrity; but if this is all we offer the talented tenth man, we make a prodigious mistake…The tenth man, with superior natural endowments, symmetrically trained and highly developed, may become a mightier influence, a greater inspiration to others than all the other nine, or nine times nine like them.

This bold vision and lofty pronouncement laid the foundation for what theorists have referred to as an “organizational saga” that remains alive and well in the hearts and minds of Morehouse Men throughout the world. Simply put, an organizational saga is “a collective understanding of a unique accomplishment based on historical exploits of a formal organization, offering strong normative bonds within and outside the organization.” In large measure, legions of Morehouse Men have internalized and upheld this idealized mandate that stipulated that as a self-appointed, talented tenth subgroup, they had and have an existential obligation to uplift the race and be a force for good in the world.  Thus, I submit to you that this “servant leadership ethic” is an integral and indispensable part of the Morehouse model of leadership development. However, it is a quality that should never be assumed and taken for granted as a fact that is in evidence in the aspirations of all who graduate from this venerable institution. 

In this regard, let’s widen our analytical lenses and look at Black leadership in a larger and more historical context. In 1903, DuBois would add further force and clarity to Henry L. Morehouse’s original thesis. He wrote:

Education and work are the levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work–it must teach Life. The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people. No others can do this work and Negro colleges must train men for it. The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. 

But let us also remember the admonition offered by the the prolific historian, Carter G. Woodson in his seminal work, The Miseducation of the Negro (1933). In it, he suggested that the so-called talented tenth had somehow lost its way, reneged on its promise and was more preoccupied with securing leadership positions than in serving others, i.e., uplifting the race. Arguing for “service rather than leadership”, Woodson noted:

If we can finally succeed in translating the idea of leadership into that of service, we may soon find it possible to lift the Negro to a higher level. Under leadership we have come into the ghetto; by service within the ranks we may work our way out of it. Under leadership we have been constrained to do the biddings of others; by service we may work out a program in the light of our own circumstances.

More strikingly, in 1948 and with forty-five years of hard experience behind him, DuBois felt compelled to reluctantly revisit and revise his original opinions and expectations of the much heralded “talented tenth.” He disappointedly wrote:

I want then to re-examine and restate the thesis of the Talented Tenth which I laid down many years ago…I assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow. In my youth and idealism, I did not realize that selfishness is even more natural than sacrifice… The new generation must learn that the object of the world is not profit but service and happiness.

Finally, you may also recall that this lecture on servant leadership ended with a discussion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s passionate capstone sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct” (1968). I urge you to re-read it often as a reminder that service is both the hallmark of the quintessential “Morehouse man” as well an existential ground of being for all who have the heart and desire to serve humanity. Recall his timely counsel:

... and so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important— wonderful. If you want to be recognized— wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness . . . by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. 

At the conclusion of that lecture, we asked ourselves whether Dr. King’s sermon (delivered fifty-two years ago) has relevance and resonance with 21st century leaders such as yourselves. This was not a rhetorical question. In fact, it goes to the heart of our contemporary mission which is “to develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service.” Implicit in this mission statement is the College’s intentional emphasis on the mental acuity and character development of its students. Here I am reminded of two insights offered by Dr. King as he reflected on the ultimate purposes of the educated man or woman:

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.

He further observed: “I too often find that most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the brethren think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses.” I too share these concerns and do so with the fervent hope that as you continue your Morehouse journey and passage into manhood, you will shun these tendencies that can insidiously wean you away from the path of true service.

On the Measure of Our Success: The Preservation of Our Enduring Values and Principles 

Morehouse College, like most viable institutions, will continue to measure its success by the success of its students and alumni. And that is as it should be. That said, I think it is important for each of us to have a clear sense of how our individual and collective successes should be measured.  In the final analysis, it is always fair and reasonable to ask how our actions and the work of our various organizations serve others and contribute to the greater good. How do we create and maintain organizations that generate more light and less heat? How do we build more bridges and fewer walls that permanently set us at odds with those of different appearances and persuasions? And as aspiring entrepreneurs, how might one do well in order to do good? 

I ask these types of questions, firm in the belief that the future of our planet and indeed our species may well hinge on the actions of an authentic “critical mass” of servant leaders operating in all sectors of society and walks of life. The existence and workings of such leaders are clearly identifiable in our national history and in the worldwide annals of historical memory. And it matters not whether they constitute one tenth, one hundredth or one millionth of our global population. What is important is the fact that they effectively exert a “leavening effect’ on society and call us to what Abraham Lincoln rightly referred to as “our better angels.”

Throughout our virtual exchanges, I have tried to unobtrusively hold up the servant leadership ethic as a measuring rod or standard with which to gauge your success and foster lifelong introspection leading to a matured understanding of moral leadership. You will recall that in the course of those exchanges, we had cause to discuss the merits of the “five wells” as an apt codification of the aspirational frame of reference held by the idealized Morehouse Man. You may also remember that I respectfully disagreed with such an articulation in that it seemed to be incomplete and emphasize the more superficial, outward appearance and comportment of our students.[2]

To be fair, I do not believe these five indices were ever intended to describe the essential “moral make-up” of the Morehouse Man. In the aggregate, they speak more to the projection of a positive self-image and point to wholesome ways he should carry and represent himself in society. But this formulation seems to extol certain values and refinements that society might reasonably expect of many (if not most) college graduates, male or female. Put another way, these “wells” do not (in my humble opinion) line up with the sum and substance of the distinctive Morehouse character and world view as evidenced and rooted in the institutional and intellectual history that I have been outlining. In doing so, this well-intentioned formulation, if taken literally, tends to minimize and neglect the enduring values and principles that are a part of the very fabric of this institution and are located in the core of its unique mission. 

I offer this gentle dissent out of a deep affection and appreciation for all that this institution stands for. Unlike you, I was not fortunate enough to attend Morehouse College. But there is hope on the horizon. Last week, my grandson was born to my daughter (a Spelman alumna, Class of 2011) and my son-in law (a Morehouse alumnus, Class of 2012). And they have both assured me that barring any unforeseen circumstances, he will be prepared to enroll in the College sometime around 2037 or sooner. Thus while I am not an alumnus, I am indeed someone who continues to have a vested interest in the future of this matchless, mission-driven institution. That fact alone situates me in concert with countless alumni, faculty, staff and friends who continue to contribute their time, talent and treasure to this institution that means so much to so many people.

That commitment also places me in the company of those who are concerned that we never lose sight of how and why this institution must be preserved and strengthened to meet the ethical and social demands of enlightened 21st century leadership. For sure, if Morehouse College is to survive and thrive in the coming years, it will need to substantiate its claim that we continue to produce graduates who possess the professional competencies, integrity and positive character traits that define the authentic and trustworthy servant leader. Thus each and every one of you will be a part of that institutional witness.  And at the end of your life’s journey and by the grace of God, I can only hope and pray that you and all of our proud alumni will reap the rich rewards derived from the sixth and perhaps most important “well” of them all (Matthew 25:23).

 

[1] This particular section of the course was designed by my colleague, Dr. Kipton. E. Jensen.

[2] The distinguished alumnus and former Morehouse president, Dr. Robert Michael Franklin previously articulated a laudable and concise “aspirational vision” for every Morehouse student, namely that he  aspire to these five wells; becoming well-read, well-spoken, well- traveled, well-dressed and well-balanced.

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Sulayman Clark is currently a guest lecturer and has previously served as Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Senior Development Officer at Morehouse College.