The Savior Complex – African America’s Addiction To Leaders And Not Leadership

By William A. Foster, IV

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. – Leo Tzu

We’ve all heard or debated this question at some point in time or another. Who do you consider the African American leader to be? Of course currently you’ll get the response today is Barack Obama. In fact he might be the first “Savior” we’ve had to not vie for this role with an adversary since Frederick Douglass. After Douglass we’ve had four sets of men vying for the savior role in selected periods of time over the past century. Initially after Douglass there was DuBois-Washington and then DuBois-Garvey, then Malcolm & Martin, and lastly or most recently it was Jesse and Al (and sometimes Farrakhan depending how radical you’re feeling that day).

But what is this “savior” complex we have? In its simplest explanation the savior complex is exuded by this desire that African America has that someone will come along and be the voice and provide direction for the entire community. This person will guide us as a people and tell us what we should think. They will be the protector of our people. They will make our lives better by putting the burdens of the people on their shoulders. They will raise us miraculously from poverty, oppression, and the burdens that we feel are associated with this badge that comes with being AfricanAmerican.

Looking at this from a historical vantage point it is not difficult to understand how this came to be. As Africans we were brought to the “new world”,  be it the Caribbean as well as America, and our spirituality was replaced with religion. This new religion told the story of an enslaved people (Jews) who were slaves in Egypt and eventually saved at God’s behest through his prophet Moses. Given the only “education” slaves were allowed to have was that of religious doctrine, they took to it as a parallel between the story and their current condition. As such they awaited God’s deliverance of their own “Moses”. Now initially we were wrought with leadership – everyone fighting and doing their part to break the bondage system. But as generations passed and we became better “trained” we began to look more for that leader or savior who would deliver us.

Of course, upon the ending of slavery by Abraham Lincoln by way of the Emancipation Proclamation (which did not end slavery in the United States but only in those states that had succeeded from the Union) we have even viewed Abraham Lincoln in this light over the years. But with slavery’s end the introduction of Jim Crow and mass lynchings were put into our sphere and the social, economic, and political plight of a people continued, a savior was still needed and so the search continued. Today as African America is economically poorer than it was in 1915 (arguably the height of economic prosperity for African America), with communities marginalized through mass incarceration of its men (the New Jim Crow argues Michelle Alexander), exploitation of its women, and poor education for its children, and constant threat of police brutality, the masses of African America still seek deliverance. This is why the election of Barack Obama was celebrated with such vigor. The MAN as most of us refer to institutional racism now had to answer to one of us. Things HAVE TO be better right? RIGHT? That would depend on if you believe one man could change the leadership culture (developed over 400 years) of the entire U.S. Government?

One of the most frightful ways that we see the savior complex today is in the way we run our organizations. In the church or businesses we have a tendency to be dependent upon the guidance of one person instead of creating a culture of leadership that allows for a person to be integrated in such a way that they take on the values of the institution. In our churches the pastor usually serves as the leader. The pastor is usually bigger than the church itself in the sense that if the pastor were to leave, the church suffers a period of directionless. It cannot simply plug in a new pastor and have them deliver the messages of the culture of the church.

In business the same thing exists. I give the example of 50 Cent & G-Unit. When you think of G-Unit your first and usually only thought is of 50 Cent, not the quality music its artists produce or of a quality brand, as was the case of one of our shining examples in Motown. So if 50 Cent were to die tonight would G-Unit continue to exist? Could you plug in another CEO in his place? No because 50 IS the brand. It’s not introduced as G-Unit presents 50 Cent as it should be but as 50 Cent presents G-Unit. Such a subtlety goes such a long way in branding. Are you under the umbrella or over it? On the contrary, if the CEO of Bank of America (how many of us even know who that is?) died tonight there would be someone else in his or her place tomorrow morning and that institution would continue to produce to some degree as it always has.

We must go back to our roots of less leaders and more leadership which was certainly more apparent in our early communities of the 20th century. A leader is a finite being while leadership is infinite essence. A leader can only produce so far as he or she, in the simplest form, is alive. Leadership is a culture that produces because it is a part of the very fabric of the community. Leaders can be killed or removed from the community. Martin, Malcolm, Marcus, Huey, etc. were all leaders but were systematically removed and with their removal their movements died with them. Leadership engrained in a culture cannot be removed so long as the community stays together. Leadership is the trust that existed when your neighbor or school teacher could reprimand you as quickly as your parent could. When students in the class pushed each other because the pride of the community depended on it. Leadership is a man seeing an empty lot in his community needing to be cut and not waiting on the city. Leadership is our teenagers spending time with our elders learning their knowledge and wisdom. Leadership is caring about taking your kid to the museum AND your neighbor’s kid while they are at work. It is donating to an HBCU whether you went to one or not, because it is an African American institution representing the masses of African America. Leadership is a culture based within an institution: the institutions of family, neighborhoods, businesses, schools, and other organizations serving our community.

An environment of good leadership should be able to sustain itself even if there is a defined leader or not. Let us stop putting all the weight of our people on one person’s shoulders, for that is a burden no one person should or can carry. Let us spread the weight of progress across 40 million citizens strong here in American and 1 billion across the Diaspora and all do our part in pushing forward. That way if one falters of the many then the entire movement of progress does not die – or as Dr. Clarke poignantly said in his documentary A Great & Mighty Walk – “Bury the man continue the plan.”

Mr. Foster is the Interim Executive Director of HBCU Endowment Foundation, sits on the board of directors at the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy, & HBCU Chamber of Commerce. A former banker & financial analyst who earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics & Finance from Virginia State University as well his master’s degree in Community Development & Urban Planning from Prairie View A&M University. Publishing research on the agriculture economics of food waste as well as writing articles for other African American media outlets.


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