“[Mr. Hutt][…] I do not think that you are doing yourself justice here and I hope you will excuse me if I speak to you rather plainly. I very much hope that you will be able to remain here until the end of the year with credit to yourself and profit to the school. The main trouble is that you do not push ahead; you wait too much for somebody to direct and lead you. You ought to see, it seems to be me, the difference between your work and that of Mr. Taylor, who has had about the same course of training as yourself. Mr. Taylor is constantly leading in his work, working in season and out of season. Instead of having someone to lead him he is constantly making suggestions as to what should be done […] You may think that I speak to you very plainly; but it is a good deal better to speak to you this way now than wait until the end of the term and say to you that we do not wish your services longer. I hope very much that we can keep you in the employ of the school, and shall do so if your prove worthy, but certainly if you do not, you cannot expect to be re-employed next term […] I do hope that between now and that time you will put your department in shape to be inspected, but in order for you to do yourself justice it is going to require hard and constant work on your part, and you will have to apply yourself in a way that you have never done before.” – “February 3, 1894,” Booker T. Washington
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
The “Tuskegee Machine” was no mere designation describing Booker T. Washington’s and Tuskegee University’s political and economic strength across the nation. Instead, it also referred to the systemic administrative and management philosophy of its founding principal and president, and his insistence upon the effectiveness and efficiency of every function within the organization. And this letter to Mr. Will Eugene Hutt is no exception. First, Mr. Washington-as he does so in all of his writings and speeches-“speaks…plainly.” All too often hearers attribute rudeness to plain speech, frankness and honesty when hearing truths that are unpleasant to the recipient. Second, Mr. Washington did not take the road most often travelled in leadership. Such leadership avoids difficult discussions and makes decisions in the dark. Mr. Washington might have easily hid his concerns-wait him out-and grant this employee no opportunity to correct the deficiencies within his department. What one expects, one must inspect, and it is clear that Mr. Washington was not sitting on the mountain top of “Tuskegee Machine.” Rather, he was a very real participant in the affairs of Tuskegee Institute (University) to make the pointed suggestions he offers to Mr. Hutt. Third, he provides an example of an employee who does not wait to be “push[ed] ahead” or “for somebody to direct and lead” them. To the contrary, Mr. Taylor, another employee in the same rank and class, was value-added to Mr. Washington. He took initiative “constantly making suggestions as to what should be done.” (One could rightly criticize Mr. Washington if he did not point to any employees who fulfilled his expectation but instead he provided an example to Mr. Hutt-one of his peers and colleagues-to demonstrate that the expectations he had for employees could not only be received but also achieved.) Lastly, he reminded Mr. Hutt that he had not exercised his right to remove him but instead was speaking plainly and frankly to encourage him, perhaps even to motivate him. And he did so with the understanding that Mr. Hutt might have never had such expectations, for he completed his correspondence with a parting admonition that “it is going to require hard and constant work on your part, and you will have to apply yourself in a way that you have never done before.” Perhaps Mr. Hutt had never had such a supervisor provide such clear expectations? Perhaps Mr. Hutt’s previous supervisors merely discussed his poor performance with others as opposed to Mr. Hutt directly? Perhaps Mr. Hutt responded and eventually became one of the greatest employees in the annals of Tuskegee Institute (University)? Whatever Mr. Hutt’s response might have been, it is clear that he fully understood Mr. Washington’s expectations of him, which is what real leadership looks like: Transparent, Consistent, Communicative and Collaborative.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University