The African American Leadership Forum (AALF) is currently requesting submissions from Minnesotans who identify as African American for our 2020 My Blackness Means digital campaign by finishing the sentence, “My Blackness means . . .” The purpose of this campaign is to amplify the voices of African Americans in Minnesota and to explore how the past, present, and envisioned future inform who we are and how we lead.

We recently reached out to AALF Associate Director Ernest Comer III to get his insights on what Black leadership means to him.

AALF Associate Director, Ernest Comer IIIAALF: How does being African American impact your leadership style?

Comer: I recognize both the value and vulnerability that comes with the Black experience. In my leadership I hold the feeling of being part of a community that is highly visible and highly capable, while simultaneously undervalued and under-resourced. The weight of that feeling helps drive my commitment to seek out and uplift winning examples of engagement and stewardship in both community and professional spaces.

The empathy I have for people who live Black experience allows me to appreciate the fact that not everyone encounters the same circumstances or has a similar response to those circumstances — this allows me to lead from the heart leaning into care and curiosity while driving accountability in a way that encourages growth rather than dismissing, neglecting or taking a condescending approach with people who depend on my leadership.

What AALF Leadership persona do you identify with most (Thought Leader, Builder, Ambassador, Influencer) and what have you learned from other African American leaders you’ve worked with or witnessed throughout your career?

The leadership persona that resonates most with me is Ambassador. I am a connector, drawing people to resources, opportunities and to each other. Throughout my career Black leaders who I have witnessed and worked with taught me the value of togetherness and “championship” in the context of being a champion for the people in your network. When we invest time in building relationships with one another and intentionally make an effort to speak to the strengths, virtue, and value of the people who we lead with, a significant return comes in the form social capital, tangible resources, and career advancement for everyone involved.

An idea that sticks with me is this: Having a strong brand is a powerful state to experience, even more powerful is the state of being host and curator to the platform that others seek to become aware of individuals and institutions with strong brands; I pursue the latter.

What is Black leadership and how does it differ from other leadership styles?

I would describe Black leadership as passionate, determined, committed, and energetic. The challenges faced by our community even for our children are highly consequential often having lifelong or fatal outcomes. Black leaders rarely undervalue the problems that impact community.

Unfortunately, it is Black leadership itself that is undervalued, which leads to limitations that drive a level of urgency that can become a barrier to restorative activities and investment in taking a proactive approach; knowing this we understand that Black leadership is resilient and thriving despite the layers of adversity it must endure. Black leadership elevates powerful solutions because mediocrity could never suffice.

AALF also asked Comer III to reflect on the Leadership Academy and how it has influenced his own leadership journey. 

How has facilitating AALF’s Leadership Academy impacted your own approach to leadership?

My approach to leadership includes leading with care and curiosity, encouraging highly effective solutions and creating unforgettable experiences; my experience in leaning into the opportunity to redesign and drive the Josie R. Johnson Leadership Academy has truly validated my belief in this approach. Running this cohort experience has given me a better understanding of the value of providing direction as a leader, especially in rooms full of leaders. When direction is not provided others will take it upon themselves to establish a direction that may or may not be aligned with the purpose or intent of the space they have been invited to — this is true at work, at home, and in community.

In the time that you’ve led the program, what are some of the biggest challenges around leadership development that participants have had?

One of the greatest challenges I have noticed is discomfort with accountability; in practicing leadership many of us struggle with holding ourselves accountable, holding others accountable and responding to situations when we are being held accountable. In his book The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks writes: “Behind every communication problem is a sweaty ten-minute conversation you don’t want to have.” When leaders take the time to explore the discomfort they have with accountability, lean into better understanding it and then practice that accountability — conversations in low-stakes situations — that preparation can create far greater outcomes for everyone involved.

What are the core principles of the Leadership Academy and how do they connect with your leadership persona (Thought Leader, Builder, Influencer, Ambassador)?

The core principles of the Leadership Academy are best captured with the images found in the Leadership Academy logo. Community engagement is one principle depicted with the Sankofa symbol meaning “return and get it.” This image alludes to the importance of learning from the past. Leadership development is depicted with the symbol called Boa Me Ne Me Mmoa Wo, which means: “Help me and let me help you.” This is the symbol of cooperation and interdependence. Finally, Meaningful Relationships (or Tribe building) is depicted by Nkonsonkonson, which is “chain link” and a symbol of unity and human relations — a reminder to contribute to the community and that in unity lies strength. Each of these principles resonate deeply with me as an Ambassador because I appreciate the collective strength in our community and the power that lies in all of us when we are supporting and encouraging one another.

Learn more about the Josie R. Johnson Leadership Academy (JRJLA).