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Dr. Maya Angelou and her Leadership Abilities Research Paper


Abstract

This paper discusses the essence of Maya Angelou’s leadership abilities in regards to her endowment with the psychological traits of a truly charismatic individual. The main idea, which is being promoted throughout this paper’s entirety, is that the first key to the effectiveness of Angelou’s leadership-style is her unwavering allegiance to the plight of liberation-seeking African-Americans.

Dr. Maya Angelou and her Leadership Abilities

In his critically acclaimed TV series Civilization, British historian Kenneth Clark came up with a memorable remark: “I don’t know what civilization is, but I’m sure I’ll be able to recognize one when I see it” (00.01.10).

This Clark’s statement relates to the paper’s subject matter (namely, the leadership style of Maya Angelou) perfectly well, because one does not have to possess much of a theoretical knowledge about the concept of leadership, in order to be able to recognize Maya Angelou as a great leader; she never ceased embodying this concept.

Nevertheless, in order for us to be able to substantiate the soundness of this suggestion, the very essence of Angelou’s foremost leadership-qualities needs to be thoroughly examined. In this paper, I will aim to do just that.

Nowadays, it became a commonplace practice among politically correct Westerners to discuss the concept of leadership in terms of the concept of management.

Moreover, as practice indicates, many of them go even as far as implying that the term ‘leadership’ is being virtually synonymous to the term ‘cooperation’: “Leadership is a process by which diverse groups of people are empowered to work together synergistically toward a common vision and common goals” (Werhane, 2007, p. 427).

Nevertheless, the concept of leadership is best defined not as a process per se, but as one’s ability to get a particular process underway and to ensure this process’s effectiveness. According to Dubrin (2010): “We can define leadership as the ability to inspire confidence and support among the people who are needed to achieve organizational goals” (p. 3).

When it comes to inspiring confidence in others, however, a potential leader cannot solely rely on its ability to rationalize the challengeable emanations of surrounding reality, he/she must possess certain charismatic qualities, which usually appear being of a mostly inborn nature. In its turn, this explains why rationale-based criteria for assigning one with the functions of leadership often prove to be rather ineffective.

The validity of this statement can be well explored in regards to the classical sci-fi films Alien and Terminator, which accurately portray the very mechanics of how seemingly undistinguishable and subservient women realized themselves being in position of natural-born leaders which, in turn, allowed them to proceed with the mission of ‘saving the world’ much more effectively, as it would have been the case with those who were fitted for this mission so much better, physically strong and rationalistically minded males.

Apparently, it is not only that women are being perfectly capable of acting as leaders, but they also appear naturally predisposed towards assuming this role, because unlike what it happened to be the case with men, the workings of a female psyche is being much more attuned with the ways of nature.

This is precisely the reason why, unlike men, women have traditionally been thought of to possess strongly defined intuitive powers, self-sacrificial instincts and a heightened sense of cosmic spirituality.

Even a brief analysis of these psychological characteristics reveals them as such that are being inseparably fused with the existential traits of true leaders, outlined in Dubrin’s book, as according to the author, natural-born leaders are supposed to be: “Visionary, courageous, charismatic… creative” (p. 5).

When one begins to study Maya Angelou’s biography, it becomes only the matter of time, before he/she would get to realize that Angelou was in fact endowed with all of the earlier mentioned qualities.

Therefore, it makes a perfectly logical sense to discuss her leadership-style in regards to these qualities, as it is namely because Angelou never ceased being looked upon as a role model by her contemporaries, that she was able to remain on the leading edge of America’s civil rights movement.

What makes Angelou so memorable as both an individual and a champion of African-American liberation movement is the fact that ever since her young years, she continued to promote her vision of what should have constituted the realities of American living, unaffected by racism: “Can you imagine if this country were not so afflicted with racism?

Can you imagine what it would be like if the vitality, humor and resilience of the black American were infused throughout this country?” (Nguyen, 2008, p. 201).

This gives Angelou a particular credit, after all, during her childhood, it was not only unthinkable for the people of color in America to dream of racial equality but even to question the ‘God-given’ appropriateness of African-Americans being subjected to the various forms of racialist mistreatment.

However, it was not solely due to the Angelou’s progressiveness in how she went about exposing the ugly face of white racism that she was able to attain a fame of one of the most remarkable leaders of civil rights movement, but also due to her ability to advance the cause of women’s emancipation.

It is essential to understand that prior to the publishing of Angelou’s autobiographical novel I know why the caged bird sings, women’s existential anxieties (especially the ones concerned with the very essence of female sexuality) were not considered a worthy subject to be discussed in the works of American literature.

In fact, even throughout the sixties, it remained a commonplace assumption, among the majority of America’s policy-makers, that being housewives represented women’s ‘natural calling’ in life. Angelou, however, succeeded with challenging the validity of this assumption.

In her novels, she shows that just as it is being the case with men, women deserve to enjoy the liberty to go about attaining social prominence in just about any way they consider appropriate.

Therefore, the socially imposed taboo on discussing women’s existential problematics is being of clearly oppressive nature and, as such, it needs to be disposed of: “The fact that the adult American Negro female (who) emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence.

It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserved respect if not enthusiastic acceptance” (Angelou 1969, p. 231).

It is needless to mention, of course, that such Angelou’s stance on the issue has been of clearly visionary nature, just as it was the case with the most prominent intellectuals, throughout the course of history, Angelou proved herself being way ahead of its time, in terms of how she used to assess the actual essence of a variety of different tradition-based social taboos.
Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that throughout her career as a political activist, Angelou continued to be awed and hated with the same degree of passion, one of the most striking characteristics of an individual with inborn leadership abilities.

Apparently, due to the sheer progressiveness of Angelou’s various literary, entertainment-related and political activities, these activities simply could not go unnoticed by both her supporters and adversaries.

Even though that, as of today, mainstream Medias tend to refer to the leadership-criteria as such that is being primarily concerned with self-proclaimed ‘leaders” ability to indulge in the meaningless politically correct rhetoric, while addressing the crowds of potential voters, true leaders do not talk even nearly as much as they actually act, often despite the impossible odds.

In its turn, this requires them to be thoroughly familiarized with the notion of courageousness. After all, it is only natural for a particular individual who aspires to lead others to some common goal, to assume that the safety or his/her personal life can never be fully guaranteed.

Maya Angelou’s biography leaves no doubt as to the fact that courageousness never ceased being one of her foremost existential traits.

Even though that throughout the course of sixties and seventies, Angelou was perfectly aware that her political activities could well result in her being murdered, just as it happened to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, she, nevertheless, continued on with popularizing the message of racial liberation to the oppressed African-Americans.

Such her popularization, however, was not only limited to adopting a progressive stance on the issues of socio-political importance, while speaking on the behalf of America’s underprivileged citizens, Angelou never skipped an opportunity to practically contribute to the process of African-Americans beginning to shake off the yoke of racial oppression.

In 1962, Angelou traveled to Ghana and remained there for three years, while taking an active part in helping Black expatriates from America to become adjusted to the realities of African living (Peniel, 2010, p. 50).

Partially, Angelou’s strive to encourage African-Americans to explore their cultural roots can be explained by her unwavering belief that in order for Black people to be able to achieve equality with Whites, they should not be begging for such an equality, but to simply become powerful enough, so that even the most arrogant racists would be forced to recognize the validity of a Black plight.

Apparently, Angelou never ceased sharing Malcolm X’s idea that it is utterly naïve to expect civil rights to be given; these rights must be taken forcibly. And, it is specifically after African-Americans regain their vitality by the mean of distancing themselves from Western ideologemes, that they will be in position to compete with Whites on equal terms.

Therefore, there is nothing particularly odd about the fact that even up until comparatively recent times, many of Angelou’s novels used to be banned from America’s public libraries, apparently, decadent Whites were quick enough to realize that the ideas, contained in these novels, directly threatened the prospects of their continuous dominance over underprivileged African-Americans (Foerstel, 2002, p. 65).

Nevertheless, as practice shows, the more Angelou was being criticized on account of her ‘sexual explicitness’ and ‘black racialism’, the more and more African-Americans were growing to recognize her as a true leader.

This simply could not be otherwise, because by assuming an uncompromising stance, in regards to what signifies a foremost obstacle on the way of African-Americans aspiring to realize the full extent of their existential potential, Angelou had proven to be a truly courageous individual, who considered the ensuring of her people’s well-being as such that represented her first-order priority.

Apparently, Angelou was fully aware of the fact that without being endowed with the sense of courageousness, one cannot expect to be able to inspire trust in potential followers. As she had pointed out: “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential.

Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency” (Nguyen, 2008, p. 98). Therefore, it will be fully justified, on our part, to stress out Angelou’s sharply defined sense of courageousness as yet another integral part of her leadership style.

The most peculiar characteristic of definitions of charismatic leadership is the fact that they are being often associated with mutually contradictory ethical implications.

For example, according to Popper (2000), this particular leadership-style is necessarily negative: “Charismatic leaders… use power for personal gain only, promote their vision, maintain one-way communication, and rely on convenient external moral standards to satisfy self-interests” (p. 731).

Shamir, House and Arthur (1993), on the other hand, refer to the concept of charismatic leadership in clearly positive terms: “Charismatic leadership is seen as giving meaningfulness to work by infusing work and organizations with moral purpose and commitment rather than by affecting the task environment of followers, or by offering material incentives and the threat of punishment” (p. 578).

Apparently, this concept cannot be discussed outside of charismatic leaders’ personality, of what happened to be their actual leadership-agenda, and of whether the utilization of charismatic leadership-style, on their part, is being consistent with the innermost workings of their psyche.

The first indication of Angelou being indeed a charismatic leader is the fact that regardless of what happened to be the actual nature of her socio-political, literary or artistic activities at a particular point of time, she never ceased being regarded as one of the most outspoken and popular advocates of a Black liberation movement.

This is because Angelou’s very presence used to radiate a robust charismatic spirit, hence, people’s tendency to perceive her as an authority-figure and their willingness to affiliate themselves with Angelou’s socio-political ideas, as if these ideas happened to be their own.

Yet, Angelou never took any personal advantage of her qualities as a natural-born leader of racially and socially oppressed African-Americans. In its turn, this exposes the sheer fallaciousness of Popper’s description of charismatic leadership’s actual essence.

Apparently, it never occurred to this rationally minded author that the very reason why true charismatic leaders enjoy an unwavering popularity with masses is that these leaders’ sense of intellectual honesty and their sense of existential idealism (the foremost prerequisites of charismatic) prevent them from abusing their charismatic powers.

After all, even such notoriously wicked charismatic leaders as Hitler and Stalin could be blamed for just about anything, but for having used their charisma to pursue strictly personal agendas.

It appears that the actual reason why charismatic Whites often end up taking the side of evil is that, unlike what it happened to be the case with the people of color, their rationale-driven sense of perceptional materialism does not allow them to expand their minds. Hence, these people’s tendency to try to adjust reality to their vision of what they think this reality should have been.

As it was noted by Tarnas (1991), “The Western mind’s overriding compulsion to impose some form of totalizing reason – theological, scientific, and economic, on every aspect of life is accused of being not only self-deceptive but destructive” (p. 400).

African-Americans, however, do not strive to dehumanize nature, as Whites do, but to live as nature’s integral parts: “Most African worldviews emphasize belongingness, connectedness, community participation and people centeredness” (Mkabela, 2005, p. 180).

Therefore, the fact that throughout the course of her life, Angelou continued to rely on primarily charismatic methods of raising public support to the cause of Black liberation could not have possibly resulted in any negative consequences, whatsoever. That is, of course, if undermining White people’s racist dominance in just about all the spheres of country’s public life is not to be considered a ‘negative consequence’.

One of the reasons why charismatic leaders are able to amass public support to the causes they promote is that there can hardly be any limit to their sense of creativeness (Gill 1969). The validity of this statement can be well illustrated in regards to Angelou’s biography, as an individual who proved herself being equally efficient in a number of seemingly incompatible pursuits.

For example, even though that, as of today, Angelou is being primarily remembered for her contribution to the cause of Black liberation, she was also able to gain the fame of a talented dancer. In fact, it was due to the sheer strength of Angelou’s artistic talents that she was able to attain social prominence for the first time in her life.

According to Nelson (2002), “It was in 1953 while performing at the Purple Onion, a cabaret in San Francisco, that she (Angelou) first used the stage name of Maya Angelou. Her dancing and singing at the Purple Onion attracted producers’ attention” (p. 13). As time went on, Angelou began to explore her sense of creativeness in the domain of literature.

It is essential to understand that before the publishing of her now-famous autobiographical novels, the very literary format of ‘semi-fictitious autobiography’ did not exist. Yet, experiencing the sensation of being destined for greatness (another psychological trait of a true leader), Angelou never had any reservations against breaking a number of well-established literary conventions.

Such a strong was Angelou’s conviction in the sheer potency of her creative genius that despite having no prior experience in composing music, she nevertheless, succeeded in writing a musical score to the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia (Gillespie, Butler & Long, 2008, p. 105).

Early seventies also mark the time when Angelou began experimenting with poetry. Predictably enough, she was able to succeed in this particular undertaking, as well in 1971, Angelou’s book of poems Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water’ Fore I Diiie was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Nevertheless, it would be wholly inappropriate to suggest that Angelou went about exploring her creativeness in solely literary/artistic domains.

For example, while being perfectly aware of the fact that the religion of Christianity has traditionally been helping Whites to keep African-Americans in submission, in her numerous public speeches, Angelou had made a point in exposing this ‘religion of peace and tolerance’ as what it really is, yet another instrument of White racist oppression.

In its turn, this explains why throughout seventies and eighties, she affiliated herself with Louis Farrakhan, a prominent leader of the Black Islamic movement.

Given the fact that one’s sense of creativeness is being largely concerned with his/her ability to revise the validity of seemingly ‘unshakable’ conventions, regardless of whether they happened to be of political, artistic of religious nature, there is nothing utterly surprising about Angelou’s association with the Nation of Islam.

Despite being endowed with a strongly critical attitude towards just about any organized religion, Angelou proved herself intuitive enough to realize that in order for African-Americans to be able to get a strong grip of their destinies, they must be ready to embrace a new spiritually liberating religion. That is, of course, if this religion stands in striking opposition to the so-called ‘Western values’.

This once again exposes Angelou as a true leader, whose leadership-style emanates a strong spirit of creativeness and unconventional. It simply could be otherwise, as it was shown earlier, Angelou’s ability to rely upon the deployment of creative/intellectually flexible approaches towards addressing life’s challenges, created objective preconditions for her leadership-style to prove utterly useful.

It does not represent much of a secret that the majority of people do have the aspirations of leadership. The irony lays in the fact that, as practice indicates, the less acute are the conscious leadership-related anxieties in a particular individual, the better he/she fits the role of a leader. In part, this can be explained by the fact that the sense of personal humility is another psychological trait of true leaders.

Therefore, it makes a perfectly good sense that despite Angelou’s endowment with the earlier analyzed leadership-qualities, she never strived to make a point in exhibiting them deliberately. This, however, simultaneously caused Angelou’s leadership-qualities to define the very essence of her positioning in life.

Even though that throughout her early years Angelou experienced a number of different hardships, she managed to remain an utterly optimistic individual, who faced life’s challenges with a smile on her face.

Just as it was the case with the rest of universally recognized female leaders, such as Joan of Arc or Margaret Thatcher, for example, Angelou’s talent in captivating audiences has been mainly concerned with her ability to show men what it means to act like real men, whatever illogical it may sound. In its turn, this had to do with the fact that despite Angelou’s external appearance as a fragile woman, she possessed an unbendable will power.

Apparently, the very purpose of her existence has always been serving the cause of African-Americans’ empowerment. This is the reason why in 2011, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defense of a suggestion that Maya Angelou should indeed be regarded as the one of America’s most prominent charismatic leaders, is being entirely consistent with this paper’s initial thesis.

Therefore, it will only be logical to conclude this paper by reinstating once again that the actual key to Angelou’s effectiveness, as the spokesperson on behalf of the Black liberation movement, is the fact that she was predestined to live the life of a people’s servant. Hence, the striking omnipotence of Angelou’s leadership abilities, pure and simple.

References

Angelou. M. (1969). I know why the caged bird sings. New York: Random House.

Dubrin, A.J. (2010). Leadership: Research, findings, practice, and skills. Mason. OH: South-Western College Pub.

Foerstel, H.N. (2002). Banned in the U.S.A.: A reference guide to book censorship in schools and public libraries. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Gill, M. (Producer). (1969). Civilisation: A personal view by Kenneth Clark [Film]. London: BBC2.

Gillespie, M. A., Butler, R.J. & Long, R.A. (2008). Maya Angelou: A glorious celebration. New York: Random House.

Mkabela, Q. (2005). Using Afrocentric method in researching indigenous African culture. Qualitative Report, 10(1), 178-189.

Nelson, E.S. (2002). African American autobiographers: A sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Nguyen, T. (2008). Language is a place of struggle: Great quotes by people of color. Boston: Beacon Press.

Peniel, J.E. (2010). Dark days, bright nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. New York: Basic Civitas.

Popper, M. (2000). The development of charismatic leaders. Political Psychology, 21 (4), 729-744.

Shamir, B., House, R.J. & Arthur, M.B. (1993). The motivational effects of charismatic leadership: A self-concept based theory. Organization Science, 4 (4), 577-594.

Tarnas, R. (1991). The passion of the Western mind: Understanding the ideas that have shaped our worldview. New York: Harmony.

Werhane, P.H. (2007). Women leaders in a Globalized world. Journal of Business Ethics, 74(4), 425-435.

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