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Leadership lessons from Frederick Douglass applicable in 21st century

John Engels

John Engels

I write these words on the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ birth. He lived, worked, and was buried just a few miles from my home in Rochester, New York.

In order to more deeply understand racism in America, I have been reading and listening to first-hand accounts of living Americans whose skin pigmentation varies from my own. I’ve made this personal: looking at what I haven’t seen, studying more closely what was glossed over in my history classes, and scrutinizing the prejudices — obvious and hidden — in my family background.

Why take up my quest to examine the long saga of racism in America? As a community and business leader, it is surely my duty to understand what is going on in the society that surrounds me, particularly when an issue such as racism is long-standing and highly charged.

In my pursuit, I have turned to original sources. What has captivated me for the moment are the riveting accounts recorded in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, a compilation of his three autobiographies, first published in 1881. His stories reveal an astonishing record of accomplishments given the time and place of his birth as a black American.

Born into slavery near the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Douglass faced nightmarish hardships that began in infancy when he was forcibly separated from his mother. Before he turned eight, he had witnessed numerous whip lashings of fellow slaves, for the dubious crime of “impudence.”

As a teenager, he made several unsuccessful attempts to escape, enduring appalling punishments, only to try again.  Douglass finally succeeded, making his way north from Maryland to New York City and Massachusetts. He married a free woman of color, Anna Murray, also an abolitionist. Together they had five children before she died.

Douglass became a leading voice of anti-slavery in a divided nation. His speaking prowess, writings, and growing political connections made him the most renowned African-American of the 19th century.

What might I – and other leaders – learn about our own special calling to guide others by reflecting on this man’s odyssey from the harshest, most hopeless beginnings to a life that shook the underpinnings of American society?

To me, three leadership lessons stand out:

  1. He turned slivers of luck into opportunities

All slaves faced human degradation and deprivation. Their prospects were grim. Despite this damning situation, Douglass seized upon two lucky breaks.

His first bit of fortune came at age 12 when he was sent to serve an educated slave owner. The new master’s wife, Sophia Auld, taught him—-illegally—- the alphabet and the basics of reading. That brief education lit a fire in the young Douglass, and he devised a series of clever and secretive ways to improve his treasured literacy on his own.

The fact that Douglass lived in Baltimore proved to be a second piece of good fortune. He knew that escaping from his slave-home to the free northern states from his Mid-Atlantic location was not out of reach. He saw his chance and took it. At 20, he was on his own.

His freedom and literacy gave Douglass a marked advantage compared to his fellow slaves, and armed him with a potent tool in his fight to end slavery. He became a prolific and impassioned writer who later moved to Rochester to publish an anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star. That weekly publication reached 4,000 readers in America, Europe, and the West Indies.

Readers, to what extent do you take advantage of the privileges, good fortune, and lucky breaks that come your way?

  1. He flouted convention and stuck to what he thought was right

Time and again Frederick Douglass defied convention by making choices rooted in his own careful judgment.

In his youth, Douglass served various owners and moved several times. At age 16, he was sent to work the fields of a neighboring farmer noted for beating and breaking the will of upstart slaves. His response to repeated floggings was to defy still another rule: he fought back. He was never beaten by the farmer again.

Douglass could easily have limited his “agitating” to slavery. Instead he pushed beyond his own experience to advocate against all forms of oppression. He was the only African-American to attend the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. His skillful orations helped sway those assembled to pass the resolution for women’s suffrage.

After the death of his first wife, Anna, Douglass married a white woman, Helen Pitts, almost 20 years his junior. The marriage went against the social norms of the day, but the couple held fast. Despite public opinion, they remained together until his death 11 years later.

Readers, in what specific ways do you permit social rules and conventional ideas to limit the scope of your thinking and impact?

  1. He chose practical strategies over idealistic goals

Though a strong supporter of a woman’s right to vote, Douglass opposed Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s view that women and black men should band together to fight for universal suffrage. Douglass feared that linking the cause of women’s suffrage to that of black men would result in failure for both. He stood his ground on that issue and influenced the passage of the 15th Amendment granting black men the right to vote.

Douglass refused to support John Brown’s plan to start an armed slave rebellion in the South, reasoning that an attack on federal property would alienate wider support for emancipation.

Douglass bucked convention – and President Lincoln – by supporting black enlistment in the Union Army. He convinced Lincoln that blacks should serve, believing that the abolition of slavery would be the best outcome of the war.

Readers, when do your idealistic convictions stand in the way of practical progress?

Earlier this month, I took a walk through the snow at Mt. Hope Cemetery to pay my respects to the man whose writing inspired this column. As I stood at his graveside, I reflected on all that he endured and fought for. I thought to myself, “I can learn from this man’s character and courage.”

We can all learn from Frederick Douglass.

Racism continues even two centuries later in individuals, families, social structures and institutions. As leaders, parents and citizens, we each have a part to play in living the words

attributed to Douglass:

“I still see before me a life of toil and trials…, but justice must be done, the truth must be told, I will not be silent.”

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].

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