Why Initiative Is a Key Element to Being a Great Leader

How do you recognize a moment and get ahead of the response to guide the outcome?


Leadership expert Troy Jackson tells the story of Jo Ann Robinson, the woman who originally called for the one-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955. Even though her name isn’t widely recognized, Jo Ann’s bravery and initiative is responsible for sparking one of the most critical moments in the civil rights movement. Once again, we see that the leaders worth following aren’t always the ones with the high-level positions or the household names—they are often the ones behind the scenes, just like Jo Ann. She had so much passion for this vision of equal rights and because of that, people followed.

When people think about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, two names come to mind—Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But one could argue that the Montgomery Bus Boycott never happens without an English professor from Alabama State College named Jo Ann Robinson. When Jo Ann Robinson heard that Rosa Parks had been arrested for not giving up her seat on a Montgomery bus, she immediately went to Alabama State College and typed on mimeograph paper an announcement for a one-day boycott of city buses. She spent all night on a mimeograph machine, which is that funky smelling purple ink from the '50s, '60s, and '70s. And the way you made copies with a mimeograph machine was not by pushing a button. It was moving a crank, 50,000 times.

And then to the Women's Political Council, another group we never hear about, a strongly organized group of 100 women that Jo Ann Robinson led, they distributed those flyers all over Montgomery. So Friday morning, people knew there was going to be a boycott that coming Monday. When asked why she did it, Jo Ann Robinson said, "We knew if we were going to have a boycott, we had to get ahead of the preachers. We had to get ahead of the people who would be afraid in that moment."

So when Edie Nixon called Dr. King and said, "We're getting ready to have a boycott. Are you going to join?" Dr. King vociferously said, "Let me think about it," and didn't agree until several hours later when the momentum of the people began to move in Montgomery. There was an excitement in the air. That was because of Jo Ann Robinson and women like her who sacrificed and led in a way that people rarely even know her name today.

Great leaders are not only those who lead organizations. Great leaders are not only those who give great speeches and are the ones that are in the press and the media. Sometimes a great leader is someone who is able to catalyze a moment and serve in a powerful way and make something happen that without that person's leadership and initiative would never take place. That person for Montgomery was Jo Ann Robinson.


Troy Jackson

Leadership expert Troy Jackson has been involved in community organizing for four years—first as a volunteer leader and then as a faith organizer in Cincinnati and throughout Ohio. He has been actively involved in calling for comprehe...

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