Leadership Examples and Lessons from the First Secretary of the Black Army

When Clifford Alexander, Jr., the Army’s first black secretary, died Sunday at the age of 88, he left several important examples and lessons for business leaders to follow. Alexander served as an advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson and chaired the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC].

“Perhaps the biggest challenge of my tenure [as chairman of the EEOC] was to make employers understand how much more needs to be done to give women their fair share of job opportunities,” Alexander once recalled.

That Washington Post noted that “Mr. Alexander, guided by powerful mentors in science, law, and government, was the first President of the Black student body at Harvard University, was the first Black partner of the elite Washington firm of Arnold & Porter, and spent his career Breeds to smash borders with statesmanlike calm. He seemed destined for elective office, but lost a close race for DC mayor in 1974, shortly after the city won Home Rule.”

Alexander told military story the resistance and prejudice he encountered as Army Secretary. “I remember what I considered a racist cartoon army time. I think there were some who opposed me because I was the black secretary of the army. And on a couple of occasions before Congress, I thought the questions about my skin color were directed more at me than at my abilities. But that was a fact of the day, and I did my best to do my job – and just said, ‘The hell with you!’ If it was based on something else.”

take a stand

In 2009, Alexander urged President Barack Obama and Congress to repeal the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In conversation with democracy now, he said: “The policy is an absurdity bordering on the obscenity. It causes people to question themselves, that they are lying to themselves, that they are pretending to be something they are not.

“There is no empirical evidence that this affects military cohesion. There is ample evidence that the biases of the past have been superimposed on the US Army.”

The policy was abolished in 2011.

Combating segregation and discrimination in the workplace

“Perhaps no American has done more to combat segregation and discrimination in the private sector and in the military. His dignity and determination in the face of hate was inspiring,” said Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, via email.

“Cliff saw his role as Secretary of the Army as an important extension of the civil rights movement, and he instituted and enforced policies that have been spectacularly effective in achieving his goal,” said Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a longtime friend in a telephone interview with New York Times.

“The fact that the US military is perhaps the most integrated institution in our society can be attributed to Clifford Alexander’s foresight,” Gates added.

A groundbreaking career

“If Alexander had only influenced the political arena in which he worked for decades, he would still be an inspiration today. However, the causes he fought for, like the Voting Rights Act, made a difference in the military, in workplaces and on the streets in communities of color as the civil rights movement grew and developed,” Morial noted.

Emulating a progress model

“Business leaders from all industries should reflect, like Alexander, on how our advances on issues in our workplaces can become models of progress that can be made in many others [areas]’in our country,’ observed Morial.

“Alexander applied the lessons he learned as EEOC chairman under Presidents Johnson and Nixon to his position as Secretary of the Army under President Carter. Executives can learn from Alexander how valuable knowledge gained in one position can advance their next position, even when those subsequent roles are not identical. And if implemented strategically, focusing on the elements that produced the initial positive outcome, success can be duplicated a second time to create [an] even greater impact,” he concluded.

A champion of inclusion

During his tenure as Army Secretary, “there was a 5% increase in the number of black general officers in the US Army to a total of 30. This group included former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and first black Secretary of State Colin Powell,” according to Ken Mayes, the Employer Relations Navigator at Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families Onward to Opportunity Program.

Mayes recalled this in 2018 Fox News interview, Alexander “talked about a New York City subway ad that showed an image of all white subway riders and no women or black people in the campaign ad. He described this as a misjudgment of an accurate representation of reality, since it’s not very often that you see a New York City subway station without women or people of color riding it. When an organization develops its marketing strategy, it should strive for inclusion when outlining its internal structure or the markets it serves.”

Mayes noted that Alexander advocated that inclusion “should address that employees are not only diverse but also work well together. However, it could be seen as essential for organizations to emphasize that they attract diverse employees and that all employees represent the organization.

“To do that, they need to communicate not only their diversity brand, but also their inclusion brand,” he said.

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