Burn? Tear Up? Fight? Hug?

Choice is what enables us to tell the world who we are and what we care about.
Barry Schwartz, Paradox of Choice

We have grown accustom to having someone to which we can adorn with the title “The leader.” Some we elect. Some we select. Some are self-appointed. Others are imposed. Some are highly effective. Some are equally ineffective. Most are somewhere in-between. Our need for “the leader” has allows us to become experts at using the TW strategy – tolerate and wait. Therefore leaders tend to retain their positions, some for years, even when our satisfaction with their leadership is far below what it is reasonable to expect.

There is, however, a kind of leader – a Just-In-Time Leader – that is not selected, elected, self-appointed, cannot be imposed upon a group and, is not granted the leadership role because of education or economic status, name recognition or any of the other reasons we use to justify our decisions.

Like other leaders, the affect and effect of the words and actions of the Just-in-Time leader will be longlasting. People will be forced to live with the consequences – negative or positive. Unlike other leaders, his or her credibility comes almost exclusively from what he or she demonstrates and/or is perceived to know about a particular situation. His or her time on the leadership stage is limited. He or she is expected to recognize the urgency of the situation and speak to it in a way that gifts his or her audience with both relief and direction. It is a kind of leadership for which there is no training but of which all of us need to be aware if and when a situation beckons us to the stage.


He stands on top of a vehicle. The waiting is over. The announcement has been made. The decision is what people hoped it would not be but what they expected it to be. Tensions are high. A crowd of strange bedfellows wait – wait to see what he is going to do. ‘Lead us, their silence demand. Tell us what you want us to do.” “Burn the Bitch down! Burn the Bitch down,” he shouts. And they do.

He stands behind the podium but in front of hundreds of people seated on the ground floor and in the balcony at Morgan State College. The waiting is over. They may be angry but they are not disappointed because their belief that the system will always protect the life of a white man over that of a black man and the job of a white policemen over the rights of a dead black man has been confirmed. Hope for change is low – maybe nonexistent after all, they have been through this before. They need to hear what their leader has to say: “There is a law for retaliation. We’re tired. We want some of this earth or we’ll tear this goddamn country up.” They are on their feet. The applause from their hands and the sounds from their voices say, “We hear you. We understand.” We agree.”

He stands behind a circular podium against a backdrop of classic red robes worn by members of the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church Choir and in front of congregants who are living with a decision that for some means things are as they have always been. They need his help reconciling thoughts that are most likely in conflict with the Church’s mission and vision of Rebirth and Restoration and those that come with knowing Michael Brown “could be my Son.” ” You can’t leave the injured out of the process…, We lost the first round but the fight ain’t over. You don’t judge a fight on one round. Even if we get knocked down, we get up and go to the corner and come out fighting the next round. You won the first round Mr. Prosecutor. Don’t cut your gloves off cause the fight is not over. Justice will come to Ferguson.” Voices giving off different sounds blend together as only they can do when there is understanding and agreement.

He stands in front of a police barricade. He is one of many in Portland, Oregon protesting an injustice that occurred approximately 1,500 miles away in someplace called Ferguson, Missouri. He is twelve. “The level of police brutality toward young black kids,” is causing tears, the kind you just cannot stop, to stream down his cheeks. He is carrying an 11 x 17 poster board – white letters against a black background: FREE. HUGS!! “Can I have one of your hugs,” a policeman asked? They step to each other. A boy and a man, a black citizen, a white policeman. They embrace and for a moment, hold onto each other.


Stepfather Louis Head. Reverend Louis Farrakhan. Reverend Al Sharpton. DeVonte Hart: all four justified in their emotions. All four up-front and out front just in time to bathe the ears of people across the globe with the verbal concoction of his choice. Some may need them to be the “angry, aggressive black man.” Some may want them to play the role of the “Magical Negro” (the stereotypical black man shown in movies whose greatest joy comes from using his wisdom to help the white man understand and overcome his racism and therefore become a better person.) Still other may expect them to string together words that confront the injustice while offering hope, calls for action while honoring accountability. Ultimately it is his choice. It is not an easy one. The political agendas of the audience are as varied as their physical characteristics. Adding to this is the fact that the same people’s rights are violated over and over again by representatives of the system whose obligation it is to guarantee fairness and justice for all. But, that, as the saying goes, comes with the territory

So, what are the best words for a Just-in-Time leader to speak for this situation? How does he know the best words are the right words? Does he tell people what they need to hear? And, is what they need to hear, the best thing for the leader to say? These are questions for which I have no answers. But I remembered a word – Ubuntu – used by Bishop Desmond Tutu who served as Chairman of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. Maybe, I say, to myself, I am asking the wrong questions. Maybe the correct question (or better question) is “Is this (Ubuntu) what a Just-In-Time Leader need in order to speak to people’s minds and hearts, about their history and their future?

Ubuntu, Bishop Tutu explains in No Future Without Forgiveness, is very difficult to render into Western language. It speaks to the very essence of being human.
When we give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu.” A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming others… He or she has the proper self-assurance that comes with knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed or treated as if they were less than who they are. Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods. Social harmony is for us the greatest good. Any thing that subverts, that undermines this sought-after good is to be avoided like the plague. Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness are corrosive of this good.”

In summary, ubuntu means, “My humanity is caught up; is inextricably bound up in yours.”

It seems to me (This is admittedly my western view) it is impossible for a person not to have any ubuntu. So, for whom do you have ubuntu and how much do you have for them is the question? It is hard, I think, to have as much ubuntu for other groups as you have for “your people” even when things are good. And, it is not hard to understand how expecting someone to imagine his humanity being bound up in the same people who belong to groups that perpetuates racism and discrimination and the abiding injustice that nourishes these two evils can be interpreted as just plain crazy. But, that according to Bishop Tutu is the real Ubuntu test – imagining not because of what is but because of what can be.

This was the challenge these four Just-In-Time leaders faced as each stood before audiences, by choice or chance, responding to a situation he did not create. What must he have imagined as he spoke with and on behalf of people who could not be faulted if their mouths were watering for the taste of retributive justice? Did he walk away for his audience satisfied with what he left behind? What is he feeling now that he has had time to reflect on his message? What did his audience learned about his humanity, their humanity, and our humanity? What, now can they imagine doing with their Ubuntu that they would not have done before?

Imagine John Lennon Lyrics on Screen

4 thoughts on “Burn? Tear Up? Fight? Hug?

  1. Yvonne, this is so interesting and well written. Of course I was struck by the picture of the white cop hugging the little African American child–it would be nice to think he’s a leader for his profession….. Cindy


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