Benjamin Todd Jealous got the call at 3:30 in the morning.
“The board has finished deliberation, and they’ve chosen you,” the voice on the other end told him.
By 6:30 a.m., the then 35-year-old got out of the fetal position, he said, and took charge as the 17th president of the historic civil rights association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
It was no mean feat. Since its founding in 1909, the NAACP had been “on fire,” according to Jealous. With the current generation, membership has become “optional,” he added, with the African-American youth to reap the benefits of what their parents and grandparents had sown. But that has not exactly come to pass-Jealous’ generation is among the most incarcerated and the most murdered, according to him.
Since coming into his leadership role, Jealous has learned that one of the keys to effective leadership is simply listening. It’s a matter of discerning what people believe their problems are, then knowing what resources and strategies are available to make a change happen as quickly as possible.
Another key to leadership is to stay true to the mission, said Jealous. Ultimately, one of the most important jobs for a CEO is to raise money for their organization. And people—whether they are donors or shareholders—prefer to give money to great brands they believe in.
Jealous has been able to steer the NAACP back to its vibrant legacy—for instance, he has increased its donor base from 16,000 to 132,000 and total activists to greater than 1 million—because he has embraced the “branding” that it dream big and claim those big victories in advance. The NAACP initially formed to stop lynch mob violence, declared the end to the scourge and largely made that happen by “going the distance,” Jealous said. Today, they’re dreaming big about improving education, reducing incarceration and employer discrimination, and ending the death penalty.
“A goal must be what you will do,” Jealous said.
Jealous spoke on campus on March 21, 2013, as part of the Wharton Leadership Lectures series. Now 40, the NAACP leader got his start in activism in 1991 as a college kid working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He is a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Columbia and Oxford University. Prior to his NAACP CEO position, Jealous served as president of the Rosenberg Foundation and as the founding director of Amnesty International’s US Human Rights Program.