These interviews took place on October 14, 2017, at the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association in Brussels, Belgium.Learn more about Stella Nkomo
Scarpino: The primary is live. So as I said when the recorder was off, I’m going to start by reading a statement. Today is Saturday, October 14, 2017. My name is Philip Scarpino, Professor of History at Indiana University Purdue/University Indianapolis, IUPUI, and Director of Oral History for the Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence, also at IUPUI. I’m interviewing Dr. Stella Nkomo at the SQUARE Brussels Meeting Centre, Brussels, Belgium, which is the headquarters for the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association. This interview is a joint venture undertaken by the Tobias Center and the International Leadership Association. We will include a more detailed biographical summary with the transcript of this interview but, for now, I will provide an abbreviated overview of Dr. Nkomo’s career. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst in 1983, majoring in Human Resource Management and minoring in Strategic Management. She also holds an MBA from the University of Rhode Island, earned in 1976. She spent 17 years, 1983 through 2000, at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Belk College of Business Administration, rising through the academic ranks to Full Professor. She spent her last five years in North Carolina as Professor and Chair, Department of Management, Belk College of Business Administration. In 2000, she moved to Pretorius, South Africa, as Bateman Distinguished Professor of Business Leadership, University of South Africa Graduate School of Business Leadership where she remained until July of 2009. In 2009, she moved to the University of Pretoria, holding positions as Professor, Department of Human Resource Management, Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, and Deputy Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies. She has just recently retired.
Nkomo: (Laughing) Semi-retired.
Scarpino: Well (laughing), I think that’s the way it works.
Scarpino: Dr. Nkomo’s research interests include race and gender in organizations, women in leadership, diversity management, change leadership and leadership and management in Africa. Her academic commitment to these topics extends to engagement with issues and problems in the larger South African society. As one of her colleagues with whom I spoke made a point of saying, “She’s not just a sage on a stage.” Dr. Nkomo produced a large body of publications, including four co-authored books and over 90 refereed journal articles and book chapters, for about half of which she served as first author. Most significantly, she holds an “A” rating for her research from the National Research Foundation of South Africa, which is the highest category in the South African system based on the assessments of international peer reviewers. Her “A” rating recognizes her as a leading international scholar within the fields of race and gender in management studies. She has played an important role in graduate training, supervising or serving on the committees of numerous doctoral and masters students in both the U.S. and Africa. Included in her CV is the statement that she “Supervised mini-dissertations of 54 students at the Graduate School of Business Leadership from 2001 to 2009.” She has won numerous awards and recognitions for her body of work. The recognition that brings us here today is the International Leadership Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. So, I want to ask your permission to record this interview, to have the interview transcribed, to deposit the transcription and the audio portion of this interview in the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, with the Tobias Center and with the International Leadership Association with the understanding that they will make those things available to their patrons which may include posting all or part of this interview to the internet
Scarpino: Okay. So, what we’re going to do, and I say this for the sake of anyone using this and trying to work their way through the interview, I’m going to begin by asking you several big picture questions in order to get the conversation going. Then when we’re done with that, I’m going to ask you about your childhood and get some basic demographic information on the record. Then we’ll talk about your youth and young adulthood, questions aimed at providing users of the interview with an answer to the big picture question, “Who is Stella Nkomo?” When we’re done with those questions, we’re going to work our way more or less chronologically through your career with a lot of discussion about leadership. So, let’s get started. Again, with big picture questions, the thing that occurred to me as I read all the information on you was how did you get interested in studying leaders and leadership?
Scarpino: Where did that come from?
Nkomo: Where did that come from? Okay. That’s a good question. I think it probably came from my orientation about making things better. I remember one incident, although you haven’t asked about my childhood, but I remember one incident that I still remember that happened to me as a young woman. I think I would’ve been about maybe 14 or 15 and we lived in the Bronx. My mother wanted us to attend church, and we normally would have attended a Baptist church, but that was in Harlem and we lived up in the Bronx, so my mother sent us to the local Lutheran church. There was a young white pastor there and he would come and visit where we lived, which was the projects where we lived. And my mother said, “Okay, I’ll send my children there.” So I started going to church to this Lutheran church which was primarily white Lutherans, many of them from Germany and Europe, and got very involved with the church and really admired the minister, who I saw as a very good leader in reaching out. But then something bad happened. It was a time that the Civil Rights Movement was going on. At one church sermon, he spoke about the need for the church to support the Civil Rights Movement, and the church leadership turned on him. They said that there’s no room in this church for politics and they actually eventually forced him out. And I thought, “What is this about leadership? I thought this was what a leader does, you know.” So I started thinking about leadership and how leadership could make a difference but, of course, at that point, I didn’t have any idea of research about it or getting involved with it, but I just remember thinking, “Isn’t this what a leader does?” A leader tries to make things better for people and I saw him as trying to reach out to the poor black community which we were part of, and clearly the church was mostly middle class people, but they kind of put a stop on that. So I just remember, I still remember that incident even though I’m 70 years old. I can still see his face. I remember his name, Pastor Nester. (laughing) So that was just a moment, but in terms of formal interest, it was probably more at the time of my Ph.D. to study it and to understand it and particularly what were the challenges of people who didn’t fit the so-called leadership mold or image? What was it like for them to be a leader?
Scarpino: If you’re a woman, if you’re a person of color or…
Nkomo: If you’re a woman, yeah, that you were not the prototype of a leader which was normally a white male, well-educated. So what was it like for people who didn’t fit that to become a leader? What did they experience? How did they handle it? And also my own experience where I had been -- most of the time I had been like, even at this church there were very few black people. When I went to Bryant University as an undergraduate student, there were only a handful of black students. So I have been in many places where there were very few people who were different, and so just understanding that whole phenomenon.
Scarpino: How did you learn to navigate, repeatedly being in situations where there were very few people who look like you?
Nkomo: That’s, that’s…
Scarpino: Isn’t that part of the -- one of the ingredients that equals the sum total of the success of your career is somehow you figured out how to do this and do it with style?
Nkomo: Yeah, I know people, somebody asked me that yesterday and I think, you know, you don’t really -- you learn over time. I think that my adaptation is not that different from most people who are a solo or different, but I think my family helped a lot, my mother and father. My mother would say that you need to excel, you need to respect people, some common values, and that you have this sense that you are representing your group. So we were always taught to be very respectful and to learn. So one of the methods of doing that is you know you have to be excellent because everyone is kind of watching you, so my mother was a very big person on that. She would say, when I got my first job after high school, I got a job in a bank. As a matter of fact, it was Hanover Trust Company and it was a typical branch where the secretary sat in the open and the branch was pretty much, there were few black tellers but I had white bosses and I was this little black secretary. My mother would check me every day to make sure I was dressed right, this is true, dressed right and “listen to your boss,” so it’s kind of like telling you to adapt to your environment. She would say, “If you don’t know something, ask. Don’t make a mistake. Be on time.” So I think part of that was that. And then my mother and father taught us that, you know, take each person for who they are and so you don’t immediately think -- you don’t go in with a chip on your shoulder, you don’t immediately think that this is going to be a hostile environment. You have to wait and see. And my mother always said, “There’s always good people there, so find the people who are going to answer your questions and go to them.” And I think you learn to navigate that. You know how to -- when you’re a minority, you have to understand the majority. It’s sort of like acculturation. You have to read the signals and to know what boundaries you have and when you can push outside of those boundaries. So that was part of the strategy, but I think, I must say, my mother and father and their encouragement, so even when you ran into negative kinds of things where somebody would be racist to you or sexist or hostile, I could hear my mother and father’s voice saying, “No, you’ll be okay. You can do anything you want to do. Don’t let them stop you. You belong there.” So you push on. Yeah. So, it’s still the case every day. It doesn’t go away. I think we just, you know, every day you confront that. I mean, I can give you incidents even as recent as coming here. I upgraded to business class because I have very bad feet and I cannot stand to have my feet cramped. So we get on the plane and the flight attendant says, “Oh, are you in business class?” Well, you’re looking at a ticket…
Scarpino: It’s on the ticket (laughing).
Nkomo: You’re looking at a ticket that says business class. So most of the time, Phil, you just brush it off and you just, you know, my mother says, “Just keep moving. Just go where you want to go and the world belongs to everybody.” So those kinds of messages to us as children really helped us to deal with that situation of always being in spaces where you were a minority.
Scarpino: Your parents were from Georgia?
Nkomo: My parents were from Georgia.
Scarpino: And they lived in Georgia during the Jim Crow period?
Nkomo: Oh, yeah. My mother and father lived in the segregated south. You should interview my mother if you want stories (laughing).
Scarpino: Because I’ve talked to some of your colleagues, I heard some very interesting stories about your mom and what a strong woman she is.
Nkomo: (Laughing) Yes.
Scarpino: But the question I wanted to ask is, given where particularly your mom grew up and the relationship she must have had with white people, was she initially comfortable sending you to a white church?
Nkomo: You know what? She met the minister. She wasn’t comfortable with it, but she wanted us to have religion and she said, which was a contradiction, we always said to my mother, she said, “I won’t be going but you’ll be going.” (Laughing). I think she was more motivated that we get to go to Sunday school and to church, but after that incident, she didn’t make us go back. I said, “Ma, I don’t want to go back. Those people were actually very mean to the minister.” But my mother and father grew up in Jim Crow, yes they did. My mother as a young girl almost saw her father lynched. He was almost killed by white hooligans.
Scarpino: In Georgia?
Nkomo: In Georgia. Yes. And that was an imprint on her. My father the same thing, and that’s why they left the south as soon as they could but they didn’t have a great education. They eventually, when I was -- I was born in Tignall. My mother and father moved to New York because of my father’s stepmother who had gone to New York. And my mother and father were working on a -- they had kind of what they called sharecropping, so they had a piece of land attached to a white farmer which they would farm it. But my mother said they weren’t getting anywhere fast (laughing). They had four children and no education. So my stepmother said to my father, “Come to New York. I can help you find a job,” even though my father only had like a fifth grade education and my mother a sixth. So my mother and father left us. I was the youngest that they left. At the time that they left, I was about two or three years old, I think, and they went to New York and they got jobs. My father got a job as a short order cook. My mother got a job as a domestic and they worked for a few years. Then when they saved enough money, they brought the four of us to New York.
Scarpino: They were sharecropping cotton?
Nkomo: Cotton, mostly cotton.
Scarpino: So you spent much of your career conducting research on leaders and leadership and writing and publishing on these topics and teaching classes. In order to get a bit of a window into your thinking on this subject, how do you define leadership? How do we know it when we see it?
Nkomo: Whoo! I define leadership as helping people to realize a goal and that the leader provides guidance and support structures. I don’t define it as a hero. I think for me heroic leadership, the way I lead and the way I teach people to lead is your goal as a leader is to bring the best out in people because I think people don’t know always even what they are capable of. So if you can figure out how to tap into the person and connect with them and get them to elevate even what they think they can do, then you’re leading.
Scarpino: I know I’m going to mispronounce her name but when I talked to Lize Booysen, currently at Antioch University, she told me that you believe that there is no grand theory of leadership anymore, that you have to make your own meaning, and that leadership is really about your journey, something you have to experience. So, is that accurate? Is that the way you look at it?
Nkomo: No, I agree. I think that, yeah, I don’t believe in these prescriptive models. I hate them, actually, Phil. I really think it’s not good to give people a list because, you know, like they’ll say these are the traits or leaders do this and that. I think each person needs to find a way that how you influence. I see leadership as an influence, influencing people because people take action. The only behavior you can control is your own. I can’t make people do things, but if I can influence them to move in a certain direction… So that’s why I don’t believe in these prescriptive models and formula models, and a lot of people want you to give them a list. So it’s more like talking to people. One of the questions I always asked my students when I taught at the Graduate School of Business Leadership, which seems to stumble, they would be stupefied, “So you really want us to answer that?” I would ask them – it doesn’t come from me, it comes from another scholar, I forgot his name now, but I used it in my classes -- “Why would anybody want to be led by you? Why? Why would anybody want to be led by you?”
Scarpino: That’s probably the single most important question they should answer, isn’t it? (Laughing)
Nkomo: Yes! Because it’s an influence process and I was thinking, like why would anybody listen to me? So I see the key as influencing people and you can influence them for good or for evil, right? You could bring out their worst traits. You could also bring out the best, you see? So I think, for me, that’s how I think about leadership. So when I’ve worked with students or worked with people, I try to get them to think about it. The work I do now -- when I was Deputy Dean, I know I’m jumping all over the place -- but when I was Deputy Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies at the UP, University of Pretoria, I remember telling the dean who I worked for, look, I had a job description, you know how job descriptions are, this, this and that…
Scarpino: I’ve read a few.
Nkomo: And I said, “All due respect, I understand the job description. Don’t worry, I’ll get that all done. But here’s how I see what I need to do as Deputy Dean for Research,” because we were behind in research. People weren’t doing research. And I said, “I think the way that we’re going to increase the productivity on research is for me to help people to find their scholarly voices. So that’s my job description. If I can help the academics, whether they’re the old guys and gals who got their Ph.D.’s and they stopped doing research or the young ones, if I can help them, encourage them to find their own scholarly voice, I think our productivity will go up.”
Scarpino: Did it work?
Nkomo: It did. It did. Because I can’t do the research; they must do it. They must be motivated to want to do it and they must find a reason for themselves as to why they want to do it. So, this thing that you tell people what to do, I don’t respond well to that myself and I don’t impose it upon other people (laughing).
Scarpino: The view of leadership that you’ve just been articulating, how does it translate into leadership education? How do you teach from that point of view?
Nkomo: Well, this is what I would teach students, that one of the things you need to do is understand people. The first thing of being able to influence people is to understand as much as you can about people and psychology. I think that’s important, so in my curriculum, we would talk about general things that we understand about psychology, human behavior, motivation, development over time. The second thing is learning how to be open to people who don’t look like you. I think it’s very important that we teach people about social identity. One of the exercises I used to love to do with my students is, it’s a pie. I give them a sheet of paper and I make them draw a circle and I just say, “On this circle, think about answering the question, ‘Who am I?,’ what comes to mind, but then put all of those identities, I think you’re going to have more than one, and put it on a pie chart and make the slices according to the size of how important that particular part of your identity is to you.”
Scarpino: Boy, that must have elicited some groans (laughing) initially. That’s hard to do.
Nkomo: Yeah. That’s hard to do. But they would do it. And what was interesting always, if I did it today, it always comes out the same way. It’s interesting. When you ask people, “Who are you? Who am I?,” it’s funny. People put down things like mother, father, farmer, golfer, and then maybe they’ll put down white, male or female. Or sometimes they don’t even put that. And then I make them paste them around the room, they don’t have to put their names on it, just walk around the room and what do you see and what do you take from that? And it’s interesting that people, even though we think these physical bodies are the main thing that we see, when people think about themselves they think about other kinds of things. If you asked me to today, “Who am I?” My big slice would be grandmother! (Laughing) You see?
Scarpino: I understand that. I’m a grandfather.
Nkomo: Exactly! And then I try to talk to the students about, you know, don’t assume because I’m a black woman that that’s the only way you should relate to me. You can find a way as a leader to connect with people who are different from you because if you go deeper and you really get to know them, you will find ways to connect with them.
Scarpino: When you have your students do the pie, and I assume that you have people of color and white students in your class, depending upon their race, do they allocate different portions of the pie to the race?
Nkomo: Well if, yeah, that’s true…
Scarpino: If they’re black, is it more important?
Nkomo: If they’re black, you might see it on their pie chart, not always. In South Africa, what the whites will put as their ethnic identity, they will put Africana because that’s an important part of their identity because of their history. Yeah. So it just depends. But it’s never the biggest portion. It’s never the biggest portion, although we think it is, you see. That’s my point. I try to tell people -- one of the things I teach the students is reserve judgment. Hold your judgment. So if a person walks through that door, hold your judgment. Just try to. I mean, we categorize people, so I try to teach them this idea of holding your judgment. Don’t say, “Oh, that’s a white guy, now it’s going to be a bad interaction.” (Laughing) Or, “It’s a black woman, she hates me.” So those are the kinds of things I try to teach them. The other thing I use now too -- I don’t normally use like this typical textbook thing, I do teach them the theories of leadership but I want them to really think about, if you’re in a leadership position, how would you lead? They all come in MBA programs. You know how they come in and they think they’re going to be the next CEO. So also, the other thing that I use is because of -- I use things that have struck me. I went to Rwanda after the genocide. That’s a trip everyone should take. I went there and I thought, “Okay, we know that leaders encouraged this.” I went around to the different sites, but I went to this one site of a church where a number of people were killed and somebody wrote on the wall -- I don’t know who it was, they don’t even know who it was -- “If you knew me and you knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”
Scarpino: Oh my.
Nkomo: Yeah. So I took that and I started using it in the class and I would tell them about it. And then I would say, “You know what? We see these horrible things that happen, like what happened in Nazi Germany, you know? We see what happened in Rwanda and we sit there and we all say, ‘I could never do that.’” But you know what I say? “I could’ve taken a machete, I, Stella Nkomo, could’ve taken a machete and chopped and hacked those people to death.” And they go, “No, Professor, we know you. You could never do that!” Now of course I’m setting them up and I say, “Okay, can I tell you something? That in order to kill a million people in 30 days, a lot of people had to be involved in the hacking. And there’s documentation that there were even people from the university who would go out at lunchtime or when they had a break, they would go and hack their fellow Rwandans to death. Mayors did it, wealthy people did it, neighbors did it, family members did it to each other. And all I’m saying to you, I think it’s important if you’re going to be in a position of power, which you all are aspiring to, to think about these things ahead of time. If I were confronted with an ethical dilemma, how will I behave? And if you don’t think about it now, as horrible as it is, you can get caught up in the emotion and mob behavior or you haven’t had time to think about, ‘What courage would I display?’ So you need to think about your values and your convictions. What will you stand for? What will you stand against?” And so I try to get them to think about it because I do believe that most people don’t think about that. If I were in that situation, what would I do? I’m not saying you would do it but if you’ve given it no thought, I don’t know. But that really struck me when I read the narratives and the history of who was involved and the way that the Hutu government didn’t have enough soldiers to kill that many people, they didn’t have enough bullets. They needed help of every-day people. So what they would do was herd the people and they would tell the villagers, “Okay, the militia is coming but you’re going to be safe. Everybody go to the church. Everybody go to the local school.” So you would get tens of thousands of people and then they would bring in the hooligans with machetes. They gave people machetes and people would go and finish the job for them. But my point is, I think we use a lot of textbooks when teaching leadership, but we should try to use some of these contemporary things where we can see that leaders confronted a dilemma, okay this is what the leader did, what would you do? So I try to use them. Then, of course, I use some of the stories from my own research with people to say, “What would you have done?” So just getting people to be introspective because I do think it’s very easy to get caught up before you’ve had a chance to think about, “Who am I?”
Scarpino: So a good leader really needs to have reflected on that question.
Nkomo: I think they need to reflect on it and they need to think about it so that you’re not caught up in the moment of it, or even to know -- I was saying this to somebody the other day -- even to know, “Am I fit to lead? Have I done the work I need to do to lead other people?” Because, unfortunately, and this is even true in South Africa and Africa, people give a lot of deference to leaders. People do things because we’ve been taught that if this person’s in charge, we should listen to them. And when I interviewed…
Scarpino: Your mom told you, “Listen to the boss, ask questions.”
Nkomo: Exactly! Exactly! So you do that. But I’ve had leaders tell me that, too, when I did the book Courageous Conversations. I had many of the leaders who realized that and he said, “I didn’t realize that before but, Stella, when I got into the job as CEO, I realized I better be careful when I open my mouth because I could just make a passing remark, like, ‘Oh those curtains are kind of dark,’ the next thing I know, somebody has taken the curtains down! I didn’t tell them to take them down!” So this idea of teaching students about the power that you get when you get put into a role of authority, what are you going to do with it? How are you going to behave? That’s what I tried to do. I don’t know if I was always successful but, I see some of my students sometimes and they say, “I remember that lecture.” So, I don’t know, I hope they’re enacting it.
Scarpino: That is one of the dilemmas of being a teacher is that sometimes you rarely know the impact that you have. So, a different question, begin probing into your thinking on leadership. In 2012, I had the opportunity and the privilege to interview Edgar Schein…
Nkomo: Oh, yes.
Scarpino: … who was also a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the ILA. In a number of places, he wrote the following: He said, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create managed culture.” And by culture, he meant organizational culture. So, I’m going to give you back Edgar Schein’s statement. The only thing of real importance that leaders do is…and ask you to fill in the blank. What do you think is the most important thing that leaders do or the only important thing that leaders do? How would you finish that sentence?
Nkomo: I would say the most important things that a leader does is to enable their people to rise to their maximum contribution, helping people to be a contribution in whatever they do.
Scarpino: There’s another person here who you’ll meet when we switch off here in a minute, being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, his name is Robert Lord. He is trained as a psychologist.
Nkomo: I know his work.
Scarpino: When I was preparing to interview him, I did a lot of background reading. One of the things I read was a 1991 book he coauthored with Karen Maher entitled, Leadership and Information Processing: Linking Perceptions and Organizational Performance. In there, he and Maher define leadership as follows: They say, “We define leadership as the process of being perceived by others as a leader. The locus of leadership is not solely in a leader or solely in followers. Instead, it involves behaviors, traits, characteristics and outcomes produced by leaders as these elements are interpreted by followers.” The first thing I want to ask you is are you comfortable with that view of leadership?
Nkomo: Well, that’s what I said, I think this is why to me getting people to make their contributions because followers have to intake or take in what you’re trying to create and then they must act upon it. So, yes, I agree followers should be an important part of the whole issue of leadership, not the leader. We focus so much on the leader, but it’s really that dynamic between the leader and the follower. So, a simple thing like your mood can affect your followers.
Nkomo: Or they perceive your mood and then they feed back to you what they think will encourage that. So I think you have to be very sensitive. And that’s what I’m saying, when I took the Deputy Dean job, I kind of like focused on the academic to say how can they find their scholarly voice? And I actually get that feedback from people because they said, “Prof, what we liked about you, whenever we come to your office for help, you would never say, ‘No, do this, do this, do this, don’t do that.’ I would say, ‘What are you interested in? What’s your research question? What do you really want to know? Yes, you can do it. Here’s a resource.’” So it was more like orchestrating supporting, not saying, “You’d better publish two articles or else.” So I think that notion of getting the follower to act in a way that is a contribution.
Scarpino: I’m going to try something. Either it’s going to work or it’s not. (laughing)
Scarpino: I gave Lord’s definition and you indicated that you’re relatively comfortable with that point of view. So now I’m going to kind of filter that through something that you said and then ask you some questions. You coauthored a piece, Think Manager, Think (Fe)male: A South African Perspective.
Nkomo: Oh yeah, with Lize, yes.
Scarpino: Yeah. It kind of seems consistent to me with leadership is a process. So, a general question just to get some information into the record and so that I’m clear, do you see management and leadership as synonymous?
Scarpino: What differences do you make?
Nkomo: Well, I think management is – well, I think it’s kind of a debate that I felt we had finished. Management has processes in it. Management has processes, but management to me is focusing on operational issues, whereas I would say that a leader is focusing on bringing the best out in the people, which is two different things. I could manage the research office (laughing), but I’d rather lead the research office. So I think that was the difference for me because management I would have spent a lot of time on paperwork and processing forms and putting in procedures. And I told the Dean I have no interest in that because I don’t think it’s going to make a lot of difference; that could be done by an administrator. What I need to do is spend 90% of my time talking with the people, encouraging them, finding what they need, supporting them. So I see that they are related, but the difference is the focus on human beings and helping them to excel. That’s how I see the difference.
Scarpino: What I thought was a really fascinating piece, the Think Manager, Think (Fe)male, you start off in there by acknowledging the work of other researchers, which most scholars do. You said in the beginning, “This study is a replication of the original 1973, 1979, 1989.
Scarpino: Just so people looking at this will know where we’re going and you pointed out that he had done empirical studies on sexual stereotypes in management and that he found, or it was hypothesized, that successful middle managers are perceived to possess those characteristics more commonly ascribed to men by males and females.
Scarpino: So, if you’re a woman…
Nkomo: That’s true.
Scarpino: When you began the research on this Think Manager, Think (Fe)male, was your intent to test that hypothesis?
Nkomo: Yes. Well, we wanted to test it in the South African context. The reason why we wanted to do that was that we thought, we were hoping (laughing), we were hoping that we would find it to be different. Why? Because, at that time, South Africa was putting so much emphasis on women’s empowerment. At that time, Mandela, when he came out of prison, he said, “I want to build a non-racial, non-sexist society.” And the South African Constitution is one of the most advanced in the world. Right in the beginning, the Constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, national origin, sexual orientation. So from 1994, the message had been gender equality. Right? And then I’m there. We did this study in the 2000s. So we’re thinking that perhaps people in South Africa, because of the influence of the government and all the efforts to empower women -- a lot of women were put into government positions. The president had an Office on the Status of Women, which was very different from the U.S. Women had to fight a long time to get the sex into the whole legislative arena. So, Lize and I thought that maybe this hypothesis would be different. What we found was quite interesting, (laughing) is that the men, yes, the men in this study thought “think manager, think male.” But the women had a totally different view, especially the black women. They thought, no, “think manager, think female.” So evidently we felt like the whole emphasis on gender equality had influenced the thinking, particularly of the African women that, yes, I can be a leader. So they had a different sense of their abilities to be a leader. It had not necessarily changed for the males.
Scarpino: Do you think that one of the reasons that it possibly hadn’t changed for the males is generational? In other words, they’ve been there for a while. You can write a Constitution, but you can’t change what’s in somebody’s head.
Nkomo: We did this with our MBO students. These were not old guys and gals.
Scarpino: Oh! Oh!
Nkomo: I forget the median age, but these were our students, so they were in their 30s and whatnot. We do think some of it had to do with the patriarchal nature of South African society which probably didn’t have a chance to change because, even in the white community, the white males, especially Africana males, are a very male-oriented culture. And, of course, in the black cultures, there was this sense of male dominance, patriarchy, which I experienced in my own -- well I shouldn’t say experienced but observed in my husband’s family, where deference is given to males. So the oldest male has the highest authority in the family.
Scarpino: So one thing, in South Africa, even under Apartheid, what blacks and whites had in common was patriarchy.
Nkomo: Oh, yeah. Patriarchy was a feature of that society on both sides.
Scarpino: I’ll ask because you brought it up, how has South Africa done in living up to the ideals of its own Constitution?
Nkomo: Whoo! Not as well -- you know what? It’s a mixed bag. A lot of progress took place between 1994 to now. I think that it has slowed down. I think it’s like a lot of change projects. You know, you start with a Mandela, who was so visionary and had a lot of influence on people, and so a lot of gains were made very quickly. And then subsequently, other leaders have done good things, but now we are kind of going into a hold because we don’t have I think the right leadership. We say in South Africa, we think they’ve lost the plot, that they need to go back and remember what the whole Constitution was about. Inequality is getting greater rather than less. Whereas Mandela and the second president, Mbeki, focused a lot on women’s empowerment, that has gone to the back burner. Even the structures for that change -- because the previous presidents, Mandela and Mbeki, had an Office on the Status of Women right in their offices, but the ministry now shifted to a different position in the government, so that tells you something. I feel like the progress has stalled. It’s very hard to build a whole new country from scratch and to keep your eye on the prize, I think. So some things have improved; more blacks have gone into the middle class, more black children are in schools, more black students are in higher education. Both poverty and access, unemployment is still very high. So I would say progress but slowing down, and that’s what is making people a little bit nervous.
Scarpino: One final question about this, Think Manager, Think (Fe)male, I assume that you were not surprised that the males tended to attribute male characteristics to managers, but were you surprised at the findings that you got from the females?
Nkomo: Yeah, we were. We were. It sort of like ran with the hierarchy, although the black males seem to be more patriarchal than the white males. The females, we also thought maybe because we were two female leaders leading this study, that we were even projecting an image of women being leaders. That was one of our explanations. So, yeah, we were pleasantly surprised that the women had a very different outcome for us because part one of the issues with oppression and why it works so well is even the victims begin to believe the stereotypes. So it was good in a sense for us that the women did not believe that they couldn’t be leaders, that they believed that they could leaders. That’s how we took it. So that was positive.
Scarpino: Is that part of what you do when you teach leadership?
Nkomo: Oh, yeah.
Scarpino: Encourage people not to buy into the stereotypes?
Nkomo: Exactly. You must; if you don’t feel, you will not make it. So even though there is stereotyping, we can’t feed it. We can’t feed it. That’s what my mother said, “You have to be excellent.” You can’t feed it. You can’t reinforce it and you cannot believe, “because I’m a black woman, I cannot achieve.”
Scarpino: We don’t want to feed that monster. We want it to starve to death.
Nkomo: Yeah, we want it to starve to death and I have to do it, to make it starve to death. Now some people say that’s assimilation. No, it’s not; it’s just being smart. I was telling one of the young guys yesterday, I said, “When I went to the University of Massachusetts” -- I said it yesterday at the thank you – “When I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I was the first black woman they had ever admitted to that Ph.D. program in management.” I didn’t know it at the time. I just knew at that moment, I’m the only black woman. But I wanted to study. My topic of interest when I went into that program was to look at people of color in management and leadership. When I told them that that’s what I wanted to my research on, they said no. They just said no. They didn’t even say we’ll think about it, they said, “No, that’s not a topic you can study, Stella. You need to get a good topic.” And so, I did what they told me to do. I did a topic now when I was just moving out of my house in Pretoria outside of Capetown, I came across my dissertation. I said to my husband, “I look at this thing, I can’t believe I wrote that in 1983.” So I did something that looked at -- it was an empirical quantitative study formula. The relationship between human resource planning and firm performance. A real management topic, which is nowhere near what my interests were but I wanted the Ph.D. I needed to punch that ticket. And so I did it. I did it well. I published from it. Got me some credibility, but then I had the freedom to study what I really wanted to study. You see? So, yes, you have to bulk it.
Scarpino: I’m going to read a line from your conclusion just to get it in the record because not everybody who listens to this will have read the piece. You and your coauthor wrote: “For males the hypothesis that managers are perceived to possess characteristics more commonly ascribed to men is confirmed. Women perceive both men and women to possess manager characteristics. In fact, South African women perceive women to possess slightly more manager characteristics than men.” So that’s what we’ve been talking about.
Nkomo: I think the point I would make there is to show that leaders in governments that even if you have legislation and you’re talking about gender equality, maybe the message doesn’t always get to the men; but it’s an important message for women and young women that they can go into areas that they’re not supposed to be there. So that’s what we felt, like the message had gotten through to the women, that the women felt empowered by what the government had done.
Scarpino: How does that translate into the way you teach leadership?
Nkomo: Okay, well again, I think it’s very important even in the classroom, in the classroom setting because I experienced it and I’m very sensitive about that, that you don’t stereotype the women in your classes or just speak to the men. When I was an MBA student, the professors used to laugh at us women. They would say -- and this is how old I am -- I tell people, “I remember a professor in the first day of class of Economics, there were three of us, I think, three women in the class of maybe 20, and the professor looked at us and he said, ‘Oh, I wonder what you girls are doing here?’” Girls? And then he said, “Oh, I know, you’re probably looking for a husband,” which was very insulting. But the point is that you need to encourage, if you’re teaching leadership that even the way you teach in your classroom that you are egalitarian, that you don’t stereotype even yourself when you teach or all your examples are he. (Laughing) I used to change -- my colleagues know this -- I would change a lot of cases, change the gender of the protagonist because everything was he. And then when I got to South Africa, the South African cases were always obviously white names. So I would take the cases and make them Tabo this and Tabo that. I would change the names, too, to give the students images that people who are different could be leaders. I think we don’t do enough of that. A lot of the textbooks are still very narrow in the prototype of a leader.
Scarpino: When men were attributing male characteristics to successful managers, what were some of those characteristics?
Nkomo: Oh, I don’t remember the list. We would just give them a list.
Scarpino: Okay, alright.
Nkomo: We just took adjectives. It’s a very simple exercise. Probably if you do it today, it always -- so you just put adjectives like assertive, decisive. It’s a very simple little experiment. And then you have other things like encouraging, motivating, and so more feminine kinds of things. You just ask people randomly: What are the characteristics of an effective leader? They always check off assertive, decisive, aggressive, smart. Then you do the same and test women: When you think of a woman, what do you think of? And then you match them. It’s an interesting experiment. It’s very interesting how language informs how we think about people. And see, it’s still a bind for women. We call it the double bind. It hasn’t dissipated as much as we would like. As a society and as a people, that socialization from early on is so deep in our mindsets about what a woman is, what a man is, these prototypes I call them. So subconsciously we still stereotype. It’s very hard to get that out of people’s heads that men and women are so very basically different. So women leaders face what we call the double bind. If you behave in a manner that doesn’t fit the typical stereotypes of what a feminine person does, you can get punished. For example, if people think leadership would be assertive and decisive and take no prisoners and they are action-oriented, and your style happens to be more engaging and inclusion-based as a woman, people see you as too soft and not effective. On the other hand, if you totally emulate the masculine definition of leadership, people think, oh this woman is really a bitch, she’s nasty. Some of that happened to Hillary Clinton. She is not soft. She doesn’t cry. She has no emotion. I’ve spoken to a lot of women leaders who talk about learning to calibrate, they call it calibrating, “How do I calibrate between those two extremes?” So what if I am very feminine, even in my dress, what if I like pink and all these colors you’re not supposed to wear in corporate America or corporate South Africa? What if I like high, sexy heels or something? Or what if my orientation is to ask my employees, “What do you think?” What if I’m really like that? Or do I emulate the male? So that double bind, which I don’t think the average man -- the average man doesn’t really face that dilemma. But some women get into trouble because they try to emulate what they believe is the male prototype.
Scarpino: Do you think that that’s one of the traps that a woman who would like to be a leader could easily fall into?: I’ll just act like a man, whatever that means.
Nkomo: Yeah, it’s a trap. That’s one of the things that you have to do if you’re working with women in leadership, is to help them not go into that trap. You really have to encourage them that you need to find your own natural way, whatever that is, of connecting with people. You don’t have to give up your identity. You asked earlier: How did I navigate? You see, I think have to navigate, I hate to use this word because it’s a cliché now, authentically. If you can allow be who you are to inform how you see the world, I do think, in the end, most people can accept that because I do think that people who are around you, they want you to be real. Employees, people you work with are very good at picking up when you’re being an imposter, right? I tell the women if this is not the right style for you, if you’re naturally a warm person, be warm with your employees. It’s fine. You don’t have to say, “Oh, I have to keep a distance.” Just professional decorum. But think about that. So that’s really hard because people do have these images in their heads of I want to be nice but I need to be tough.
Scarpino: I read what I thought was a really interesting piece that you wrote in something called The Conversation on August 4, 2015. It’s called “Why White Men Still Dominate the Top Echelons in South Africa’s Private Sector.” You referenced South Africa’s Employment Equity Act, which I think was 1998…
Nkomo: 1998. You got it right.
Scarpino: …with the goal of making the workplace match the nation’s demographics. You noted that when the Employment Equity Act came into effect, white males held 87% of top management positions in the private sector, and in 2015, they held 70%, so some change but still a majority. So, here’s the question. Although the overall percentage of white males in these positions has declined, they still play a major role in top management and management more generally in South Africa. So when you conclude that for males the hypothesis that managers are perceived to possess characteristics more commonly ascribed to men is confirmed, what does that say about trying to bring women or people of color into those positions that are mostly held by men who have a particular view of what it takes to be a manager?
Nkomo: It’s very difficult. It’s extremely difficult. And even though you are getting more and more black women, African women and white women who are getting MBAs and the degrees, they are getting the qualifications, but when they get into that setting, if they get a setting where the males are particularly belligerent and withholding them, it is a problem. And that’s what I said, things have stalled. And also, part of the issue is -- that’s what I said in that ac -- I think the government needs to go a little step further. I think that I would have pushed them if the current administration had interest in that. I do think that the Scandinavian route where they set up quotas would help because especially in the big companies in South Africa, you get these situations where that woman might be the only one in the top team. And that is a very difficult situation to maintain, if you’re the only one. So I do think there is a blend between structural change, forcing the issue, so I would have been a big one to say, “You know, institute some quotas to say ‘companies, you have to have 40% this.’” The companies can no longer use the excuse that we don’t have the women with the talent and the skills because they are enough women out there. So I think the government should have pushed a little bit more on that. You can also work on diversity interventions, but I think you need the structural with the soft stuff. Because what happens, the dynamic changes. You see, once you get a critical mass, it helps -- I found with a critical mass, it is very difficult for an intelligent person -- I’m not saying others can’t -- to hold onto a stereotype, you see? So what people do is if you only have one data point, just one black woman in your group, even though she might have an MBA, she is well-educated, she speaks well, it does not disrupt your general view that most black women are not qualified because it’s like, “Oh, she’s an exception.” Or, “She got the job because of Affirmative Action.” So they dismiss this data point that, “This woman can do what I can do.” But once you create a critical mass, now you have 10 or 15 women, the most intelligent people let go of that. They realize, “You know what? Hey! Women can do this.” And I’ve heard that from talking to people in interviews. I didn’t publish it but I did a study at Transnet, which is our railroad system in South Africa. And I interviewed the women who became the first train drivers (laughing). So I interviewed these women who, from 1994, they started bringing women into driving trains. They talked about how the men would try to play tricks on them and they would give them these horrible assignments where they had to get this locomotive and then hook up like 20 cars, which I guess is a very difficult thing if you have to hook them up and whatnot. But then I spoke to some of the old white guys who were the train drivers. This is like maybe 2004, and they were talking about, “Yeah, you know, I didn’t really believe those women could drive trains, you know?” I didn’t tell them anything but he said, “It’s amazing how many of them can drive trains!” But it was at the point where there was a critical mass of train drivers. So I think what should be done is to accelerate, but a critical mass changes people’s minds, intelligent people. Now, of course, you have hard-core people, but it’s very difficult, Phil, to hold onto that if you’re an intelligent person.
Scarpino: So maybe Edgar Schein had a point when he talked about the importance of organizational culture.
Nkomo: No, I agree with him. I agree with that, but just the image of it and what that does, it’s such a powerful role model not only to the people who are the majority, but to the people who aren’t. So the more women or more people who are different who are in prominent roles emboldens everybody. Ella and I heard that in our book, Our Separate Ways. We heard that from the black women who were the first group to go into corporate America. They said that in their communities that when they saw school teachers and they saw these professional black women, even if they came from a very poor background, that emboldened their belief that, “You know what? I want to be like that.” It’s like how many black kids now say, “Oh, I can be president because Obama was a president.” So I think there’s this benefit of really pushing companies with a quota to say, “You will.” And then it’s funny with companies. Then they find the women because before they’ll tell you, “Oh, Stella, there’s no women out there. We couldn’t find any.” Then all of a sudden if you say, “Well you must,” then they find them.
Scarpino: Is leadership a cultural construction?
Nkomo: Yes it is, definitely.
Scarpino: When you study leadership in South Africa, does that also tell you about leadership in other cultures?
Nkomo: No, I think what it tells you, it tells you -- I think of leadership as an influence process, so how cultures think about people, like the classic Hofstede stuff, the societal values will shape who they think can influence them. So, in South Africa, one of the things that I found particularly among the African people is that a leader should be a wise, older person. In fact, like me as an older woman, I get a lot of deference just because I’m an older woman. In fact, in South Africa, if people see me, the black cultures, they call me mama. If they see me, they will say, “Oh, mama, can I help you? Mama, can I carry your bag? Mama, can I help you?” My husband, baba, which means father. In fact, that’s what people called Mandela. The other word is madiba, “my father.” So an elderly person is someone that you listen to. When I got to South Africa, because my husband was the oldest male in his family, his brother had passed away and now I’m his wife, I’m the auntie and I have a high stature. It was very disarming for me to have my nieces, teenagers, come to me and ask me for advice. “Auntie, what should I do here? I’m thinking about this.” And what I realized, whatever I said, they were going to follow it. So, what I’m saying is that each culture has its own mind of what that constitutes. Yeah, so older, and I hear this from young black South Africans and it’s true the Indian culture in South Africa, young black African -- my students who have gotten their MBAs and then they go into corporate South Africa, if they now have to supervise people who are older than them, that’s a very difficult thing for them. They say, “No, I’m not supposed to tell an elderly person…” And that applies to even whites and blacks. It’s a general thing. Like, if you came and they saw you, they would say, “baba,” out of deference to you as an older person. “You’re my father and so I respect you.” I think the cultural thing comes differently, but culture is an influence. It is an influence.
Scarpino: Do you think that leadership is situational, that the person could be an effective leader in one situation and not another?
Nkomo: Yeah, but to me that depends o -- if leadership is an influence process, then yes, you can fail. So, for example, if you took me and you made me the leader of a nuclear power plant, I don’t think I’d do well. You see, I think it’s more on the technical side. I know IBM had a different philosophy, that you should be able to lead in any part of the organization. But I do think part of your influence, your power, comes from your knowledge base. So I think in that case if it’s a very technical thing you have to lead, you could trip up. I kind of caution women on that. I say, “Because of stereotyping, because you don’t know always the environment and whether or not if it’s male dominated, will the males really support you and help you, I would be a little cautious taking a job where you have no technical knowledge, you have no knowledge of what you’re producing or need to produce. I’m not saying that the men would deliberately derail you, but you’ll always have this nagging issue of, ‘okay, I have to rely on these people, I’m not quite sure.’” Because one thing of being in leadership, you have to rely a lot on the people around you. So I do think there are situations where it might not be wise.
Scarpino: There is a view of leadership that basically argues that there are certain things that leaders do and certain qualities that they have and you should be able to put them in any situation and have them be successful.
Nkomo: I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s telling people. For example, I told the Dean, “I’ll be Deputy Dean for Research in Postgraduate Studies, but I don’t think I have the authority to tell others to do research and I’m sitting here and I don’t do any research.”
Scarpino: Yeah (laughing).
Nkomo: It will just dilute my influence, right? So I think it’s situational. It wouldn’t make any sense, here I am telling them, “Find your scholarly voice,” and I don’t even know my own. People have to believe you’re credible. IBM worked on that model; I’m not sure if anybody empirically tested it for them, but what IBM did to make it work, they would rotate people around. So I think over time, people picked up knowledge about different parts of the business. I’ve seen it happen in South Africa where black women have been derailed because of the push by the government on transformation, pushing too far, putting a woman in a position where she had no technical knowledge and then she relies on people who are worried about her taking their jobs, even from their children. So, yeah, it’s situational in the sense that, be careful.
Scarpino: I’m going to try something again and see if this works. James MacGregor Burns wrote his seminal work, Leadership, in 1978, just a few years before you earned your Ph.D., and he said the following on page 2, which sort of stuck with me. He said, “There is, in short, no school of leadership, intellectual or practical. Does it matter that we lack standards for assessing past, present and potential leaders?” Burns’ book is interesting. I had a chance to interview him one time. He is a charming man. But in some ways I find the book a little bit like scripture, in that you can find anything you want in there, it’s so packed with stuff. But nonetheless, he did say -- a man of some considerable observational ability -- that we lack the standards for assessing past, present and potential leaders. And you got your Ph.D. shortly after that so the question is: Burns’ statement in the late 1970s that we lack standards for assessing past, present and potential leaders, given your knowledge of the state of the field at that time, was he right or wrong?
Nkomo: Oh, he was right. He’s probably still right. You see how companies put people into leadership roles. You see, that’s where it happens. People get more scrutiny when they’re first selected for a job than when they get inside. Promotions happen by somebody saying, “Oh, have you noticed Phil? You know, Phil did really good on his sales performance. I think Phil would make a great head of this division.” It’s so casual in that regard. I’ve been in corporate. It’s so casual. Or, Phil is my great buddy, you know. Yeah, so a lot of it is comfort. We call it homophily. We like to surround people with people who are like us, so I recognize your style, I think your style is similar to mine. So a lot of it is kind of hocus pocus or sponsorship. I call it sponsorship, so I sponsor you and you move up. I also think it’s a cultural thing, particularly in the U.S., because we put a lot of weight on personal characteristics, like the person speaks well, they’re charming, charismatic leadership. And we do have this discourse in a sense, and I’ve been guilty of it, too, this discourse that everyone can be a leader. It’s one of those things where it’s almost to me like turkey (laughing). When I go back to the U.S., I always go to that section because there’s turkey pastrami, turkey bologna, turkey hot dogs, but isn’t it all just turkey? So it’s sort of like turkey can be anything. So in a sense, leadership has the same rap because it’s like everybody can be a leader. But I’m at the point now, I was telling somebody, I don’t believe that anymore. I think there are some people we should deliberately say, “No, I don’t think you should be a leader. You continue to work on your own. You’re going to do better.” It’s like, I hate to say some current examples but I won’t say it because I’m on tape, but I do think not everyone is fit to lead or influence other people.
Scarpino: There is a debate that leaders are born or made. Do you think it’s possible to train somebody to be a leader?
Nkomo: Whoo! You can train them what to do. How they will do it, I have no control over. And see, that’s that list and recipe thing. I think what you want to do is to have the person to be introspective about, “Why do I want to lead and am I up to it?” think that’s the best you can do and maybe the person will realize. I tell people now in South Africa, my students, “You know what? If your goal in life is to make a lot of money, to be wealthy and rich, do us a favor and become an entrepreneur. You know why? Nobody really expects an entrepreneur to give back to society.” We know entrepreneurs are big about -- you might do that, but it’s not demanded. But if you take a job as a government minister, that’s a different motivation. You want to serve the people. So that’s the best we can do with people, really. I don’t think giving people a list -- because it’s not them. We lead from who were are, Phil. How do we lead differently? Otherwise, I’m an imposter. I’m masquerading. And people cannot hold that plot. They cannot hold it. It’s almost like acting. So they have to be in full script…
Scarpino: All the time.
Nkomo: All the time, and I don’t think that’s really possible. And this is why we move to this authentic leadership theory, which probably was getting us closer, although there we still try to give a list. We’re kind of recipe-oriented. But I would hope that people would make a decision to say, “No, I don’t think I’m the person for that.”
Scarpino: Just for the benefit of somebody who might listen to this in the future or read the transcript, authentic leadership theory is -- you described the authentic leadership theory.
Nkomo: The authentic leadership theory is the one that says that authentic leaders behave this way. So it also ends up being a list, to say they do moral processing, they talk to their followers. It’s not really kind of new. It’s not what I would say pure authenticity. What I’m talking about, I don’t know what name I would give it, but really grappling with the question of, “Why do I want to lead? What would I bring to the leadership? Am I fit for leadership?”
Scarpino: How should we go about assessing the effectiveness of leaders?
Nkomo: Whoo! That’s a question that nobody can answer (laughing). You know, we’ve tried different methods. We look at: When the leader came up, did the firm performance go up? It depends on your outcome variable, you see. The other one is, we don’t ask followers enough. I think it has to be your followers. “How did this leadership influence me to make a contribution?” So look at the followers’ changes or performance. That’s probably your best indicator, although we don’t look at that; we say it’s too difficult to measure that. So if I look at myself as Deputy Dean for Research in Postgraduate Studies, yes, research productivity did go up, more people are doing research. Now whether or not I can claim all of that (laughing) is another question. Maybe if you interview the academics and you ask them, “What role did Stella play in you being able to publish?”, you might get at it. So it’s really talking to the people you are trying to influence. There’s too many variables out there. I don’t believe in these studies that say this CEO came in and performance went up here, unless you really are able to control all of the factors. Maybe the guy or gal was just lucky; a competitor went out of business, the marketplace changed, you got a few big contracts, or you are getting the benefit of the things that the leader before you did which now came to fruition when you got into the position.
Scarpino: That is a big element.
Nkomo: It’s a big element! Because it takes a long time for things to materialize, so you just get lucky enough that you take that seat and then the groundwork that the other person did, it all blooms for you. So I think the leadership effectiveness question is a big one in our field. We still haven’t figured that out, how to decide on that. Probably I would say morale is a big one that you should measure. Are people feeling better in this organization? Are they feeling that they can contribute?
Scarpino: I mentioned James MacGregor Burns, but since he published his book in 1978, there’s been an explosion of literature.
Nkomo: Oh, so much, it’s ridiculous, yes.
Scarpino: Some of it is qualitative, some of it is quantitative. But here’s the question: How would you assess the cumulative impact of all that literature?
Scarpino: I mean, do we really know more than we did in 1978?
Nkomo: No we don’t. We’re cycling back. We started with the trait theory, so we thought leaders were born. Then we said, no, let’s look at the behaviors of leaders; how do effective leaders behave? So we’ve been asking the same question for the last 150 years, right? What makes a person an effective leader? So the first answer: They are born with certain traits and we just need to find people with those traits and if we get those people into leadership, they will be effective. Then we said no, in the 1950s, behaviors; effective leaders behave this way, they manage tasks and relational behaviors. Then we said, no, it’s situational; an effective leader displays the right leadership style depending on the situation. So that meant that leaders were malleable, they could change their style according to the situation. Then we saw that people cannot. And then we started moving into transformational leadership which hung around for a while, that the definition of leadership was somebody who could get their followers to go beyond expectations. So we taught people the behaviors of a transformational leader. Then we said, okay, no wait a minute. There is something called authentic leadership. So we’re back kind of like focusing on the person again, tot entirely trait but back to this idea that there is something about people which is the key to understanding effective leadership. So we haven’t really advanced. We don’t know the answer to that because you cannot really find a consistent set of variables that will predict whether or not this person will be effective. We’ve written a lot, we know a lot, but we still can’t probably give you an assessment and then say there’s a 95% chance this person is going to be successful. I don’t think so. The more we talk about it, we really don’t have a conclusive answer. We’re still searching for that. We’re really searching for it. We’re still searching.
Scarpino: Do you think there is an answer?
Nkomo: I don’t think there’s an answer. I was talking with a student yesterday who’s looking at the whole thing. I don’t think there’s an answer but we need -- or maybe we have to change our whole conception. Maybe we’re going down the wrong path. I’ve been thinking about that. Maybe we should think more about community, maybe more about shared leadership, maybe more differently because we still have this idea of a “leader,” and the world is so much more complex with complex problems. Why do we think that one person should be burdened with making decisions and orchestrating and doing this? Maybe we need to get rid of the word “leader.” Maybe we need to think about self-organizing principles. You see it all the time, and maybe we just bring people together and there’s work to be done and we need to get that work done and then people will figure out how to get it done. I think we’re putting too much on leadership and “leaders.”
Scarpino: One of the things that strikes me, and I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read everything that’s been written because nobody could do that, but one of the things that strikes me is that, as the field has matured, each of the disciplines that has research interest in leadership tends to function in a silo.
Scarpino: In it’s intellectual silo. Do you see this field as one in which people talk across the walls of those silos?
Nkomo: No, they don’t. People are stuck in paradigms and then we don’t talk to other disciplines. So the psychologists -- and then you even get these nuances like educational leadership, political leadership. So we’ve gotten this thing down so grained that we don’t do that. It’s a very narrow thing. Even in management, we have strategic leadership, HR leadership. And that’s, again, what I was talking about in my – I think we’ve gotten to this incremental kind of knowledge-building. We haven’t made another big leap in the discipline of leadership. That’s what I’m saying. Probably it’s thinking even differently about the concept of leadership and not in the way that we think about it. Does leadership have to be an individual? I think we need to start asking questions that push us away. Back to the very ontology of it, what are we talking about? What is this thing? Is it really a chair? Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s totally something else. But those dialogues are difficult because people want to get published, so they don’t want to go there.
Scarpino: I was really struck by something you said in your remarks when you received your award yesterday that the tendency to look for something, some small niche to fill in order to get your safe publication…
Nkomo: And that’s exactly what people are pushed to do. It’s not really new. I sit on a lot of journals. It’s some little, small thing that they figured out nobody looked at this so I’m going to add this variable. But nobody goes back to the big question to say, “Wait a minute, let’s look at our genealogy of this issue.” It seems like it started with a person. Now we have authentic leadership and, yes, people talk about context, they talk about change leadership, but are we really asking new and different questions? But you can still get published if you say, “Well I have a different list of authentic leader behaviors because this person left this out,” and that’s that little incremental gap-finding that people can get published.
Scarpino: Again, if we think about all the multidisciplinary literature that’s come out on the topic of leadership in the last 30 years or so, do you think that those studies have contributed to a broader understanding of leadership on the part of ordinary citizens?
Nkomo: Not really. I think the ordinary citizen – well, first of all we don’t really look at those. They don’t look at it. They look at the person and if they feel like this person, I could listen to them, they’ve said some things that resonate with me, they’d probably vote for you. I think they go by how they feel. Or especially in American culture, people will say, “That person just doesn’t strike -- they’re shifty.” They kind of use these common sense things. “I don’t think that guy or gal is real. I don’t think this person behaves like a leader.” So people have their common sense understandings, which I think goes back to those stereotypes of what a leader is. So everybody has their own little definition of what a leader looks like, what a leader should say and how they behave. And that determines whether or not they will allow you to influence them.
Scarpino: Were you surprised when Barack Obama was elected president twice?
Nkomo: Well, I thought people would like him even though he was an African American male. He had a lot of charisma and personality and he knew how to talk to people and people respond well to that. People generally in the American culture respond well to a person that they think is friendly. People could call him Barack. He was kissing babies, but he appeared to be authentic in doing it. Yeah. Now in terms of, if you look purely at his legislative successes and how much he got done, maybe that wouldn’t be a high score. But, as many people said, it was difficult to give him low marks on his persona. And at critical moments, when people would get hurt or meeting people -- I remember Sandy Hook, nobody could help but to not be moved by a president who showed genuine emotion, who was a father himself. So I think people do have their own definition of what a leader is. I don’t think they’re looking at our academic definitions (laughing). I agree with Mintzberg when he said that MBA programs teach management. We don’t teach leadership. We teach management.
Scarpino: Given this proliferation of literature in the field, which is mostly professional literature read by professional people, and the limited impact that it’s had on ordinary people, does that ever trouble you?
Nkomo: It does bother me, yeah. It bothers me in two regards: Because we ought to be teaching people a little bit better about how to judge. Also, the thing that really sticks in my craw is that we don’t teach people about stereotyping, racism, sexism and homophobia. I wrote a piece that didn’t get published yet that in our MBA programs, if we know that the world is globalizing, you could just look at the city. I told my students in South Africa, “You’re crazy if you think you’re going to always have the luxury of just working with people who look like you! The world is diverse, so you’re not going to be able to pick and choose and I only want to work with people who think like me and look like me.” We need to do more to teach people about issues of race, gender, patriarchy. That should be part of how we educate young people. Our children should learn, Phil, at an early age that this packaging I’m in is just phenotypical. We teach people the world is not flat, right?
Scarpino: We do?
Nkomo: Yes! We teach people, you know, if you put your finger in hot water, it’s going to burn you. But we leave it to people on their own to understand race and gender. People think there’s male and female and there’s nothing else. Or they think that black people are like this; Asians are like this; that some people have lower intelligence. And children can absorb that and understand that, and teach them the difference between phenotype and this. There are people who actually believe that there’s something fundamentally different between black and white people. No!
Scarpino: There are people who believe that that’s…
Nkomo: Yeah. Or they don’t understand it’s socialization. It’s culture. You learn to be the way you are. So I just really feel that we’re doing people a disservice. Montagu, who wrote a book, said, “One of the most stupid ideas ever created by mankind is the idea of race.” He wished all those experiments that were done in the 1700s trying to categorize races had never been done because people believe that those things are real, that there are races and that there are basic differences and we’re not equal, which is the worst part of it. And we don’t teach that in schools. We don’t really teach it. That’s what I said the corporates trying to do diversity work, “by the time people get to the corporate level, it’s too late. You know, you’re dealing with a whole adulthood of people…”
Scarpino: They’re already adults.
Nkomo: Yeah. So people want you to come in -- I stopped doing it actually. I think it’s unethical -- They want you to come in and do a day-long diversity workshop with managers and teach them how to lead diverse people. I can’t do that in a day. I’m not trying to make more money, but there’s no way to unpack all of that stuff in a day. No, it’s deep work. So we really need to start in elementary school if we want to build a global village, cliché. But humankind, we’re able to work together if we can break down these artificial barriers that get in the way of people working together. The problems we have on this planet are going to require collective solutions.
Scarpino: Do you consider yourself to be a leader?
Nkomo: You’ve stumped me (both laughing). Well, yes, I know I am because of the power I hold. So I do recognize that I can influence people, let’s put it that way. I know I can influence people and so I try to do that.
Scarpino: How would you describe your own leadership identity?
Nkomo: Well, as I said to you, my own identity is that I approach every situation that I want to make a contribution. So, for example, if I come here or any place I go, what can I do to be a contribution? Did I leave the place better than I found it or did I suck the air out of the room? (Laughing). I try to monitor my behavior. I really do. I really think it’s more about giving than taking. It’s more about giving than taking, so what can I give? How can I make this better? I try to go in, see what’s happening -- like when I became Deputy Dean for Research, see University of Pretoria is an historically Africans university. So I knew that, okay, this is going to be a little different. Unisa was much more advanced than that. So I wanted to be in a residential campus, which was my history, but Unisa was distant space but I said, “Okay.”
Scarpino: Unisa is University of South Africa?
Nkomo: University of South Africa. This is a historically Africans university. Most of my colleagues are going to be Africanos. They’re going to mostly be Africans speaking. I know they had very few black people there. Okay. I need to get in there and see what’s going on and I need to figure out, in that context, how can I be a contribution? I find that works for me. So when you said, “Are you a leader,” I hesitated because I think of myself as a contributor and that’s how I lead. So can I leave a situation better than I found it because I have some authority? How can I use my authority to leave the place better than I found it? That’s how I approach it. Even if I came to visit your home, my friends say to me, “You’re like the best guest in the world,” (both laughing) because if I come and stay with you, I’m not there for you to make it – I’m like, “Okay, now, this is somebody else’s home, let me see how I can fit in and how can I help?” So, I might say, “Hey, can I make breakfast tomorrow morning, you guys?” “Oh, I can watch the kids for you if you want to go out.”
Scarpino: I bet people love to have you come and stay (laughing).
Nkomo: Well they always say that, but I think that I’m a servant leader maybe in that sense. That’s the closest one I would see. Like I was telling the ILA, I said, “You know, I don’t need big introductions. That doesn’t do anything for me.” I hear it but, you know, it’s fine if you -- I don’t feel affronted if you just said, “I want to introduce Stella Nkomo. She is a professor at the University of Pretoria.” They say, “Is that okay, Prof?” I said, “That’s fine.” You know why? Because I know who I am. I don’t need that stroking. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I don’t really need that stroking. I’m like low maintenance. But I’m there to make a contribution. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a big, big family of 10 children, so we had to help out from the beginning. You just couldn’t sit around. You had to do something. But it’s not like a burden to me. It’s almost a natural way that I engage the world and I think people who go, especially into education, public service, it’s service. If you’re going there because you want to get rich and famous, do me a favor and don’t go, please. My students laugh when I tell them that. I said, “If I say it, I will not write you a good recommendation because I know you want to make a lot of money.” Don’t do it. Go somewhere where you can make a lot of money and you don’t have that burden. I was telling some of the students yesterday, “If you want to be an academic, can I tell you the first thing that you must say you absolutely love? You have to love young people. You have to love working with students. They’re going to drive you crazy. It’s also going to be something where you have a stack of papers to mark and what’s going to get that done is you saying, ‘My students need the feedback,’ and you just sit there and you mark those things and you give them the feedback.” They were laughing about that but I said, “It’s not even the research yet. It’s do you like helping young people? Are you interested in them realizing their dreams? They’re there to get an education. They want to change their lives and if you don’t connect to that, you will not be good for them or even good for yourself. So don’t go into an academic career unless that’s part of your motivation or interest.”
Scarpino: Speaking of academic careers, we talked off and on about the large volume of literature that’s published in the field of leadership. Given that large volume, what four or five things would you recommend somebody read? In other words, if somebody came to you and said, “I’m interested in this field and I’d like to get started, what do you recommend I read for its maximum impact?,” what four or five things would you put on your list?
Nkomo: Okay, that’s a good one. Okay. Leadership. So I would ask them to read -- probably they need to read the classics. I’m a big person on history. That’s what I love. If I weren’t doing management, I would do history. So I would ask them to read some of these early texts about this whole debate between management and leadership. So maybe some of the early work on Frederick Taylor. That’s very important for people. They miss that. The other one is a book by – I’m getting old now -- Harvey Braverman. I’ll get you the name if you need it. I just can’t remember it. But that book changed my thinking about management. Harvey Braverman wrote this book where he explained the Industrial Revolution and why now we spend so much time in management teaching managers how to motivate people (laughing). Because leadership is a lot about that – getting people to produce. And he just talks about this transition from the craftsmanship, where before the Industrial Revolution, if you were a shoemaker, it was a craft. Right? And then…
Scarpino: They actually made shoes.
Nkomo: Yeah, okay. You know what I mean? So people were craftsmen. So you made a basket. You were the iron fitter. And people loved their work. They did their work and they owned the business, they took the profits, they were willing to get up early in the morning and do what they needed to do. Then the Industrial Revolution took a lot of those same people and put them into factories, mass production. Now you have a motivation problem. How are you going to manage and lead those people? So I think it’s important for people to understand, why do we have this problem that we have to answer it with leadership and motivation? It’s like getting people to do things because the motivator is no longer inside of them. So Harvey Braverman’s book was an eye-opener to me. But the reason why we don’t read it in management is because he was a sociologist. I read it because UMass had a very good work Sociology Department, and I decided to take some classes there because they told us in the School of Management, “Don’t take any classes in Economics and don’t go to those Sociologists.” So I was, like, what are they doing over there? (Both laughing) So I went!
Scarpino: So you did it? (Laughing)
Nkomo: Yeah. And I’m, like, oh this is a whole other view of management. So I think we don’t give managers a broad enough -- so that would be that. I think Edgar Schein’s book I would recommend. That’s the best book on understanding how leaders influence the culture of the organizational climate. So, Ed Shine’s book is on my shelf. The other one I like in terms of leadership is a book by – who is it – I would definitely have them read Donna Ladkin’s book, which is more of a book about questioning the ontology of leadership. And then I would have them read my book, not because I’m trying to sell copies, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, to give them insight into the gender issue. I would give them a diverse set of books to change the paradigm from the recipe list. I think we don’t do enough of history. We have a History of Management division but my students always say, “Prof, where do you find this stuff?” I say, “I’m trying to see where these ideas came from.” One of the reasons that many black people were never in leadership and management, I’ve found these old personnel texts in the early days of industrialization, you would love it, too, if you read them, where managers, these early foremen, they called them foremen, were arguing against bringing in freed slaves into the industrial setting. There were things like, “We cannot hire Negro workers because the humming of the machines will put them to sleep.” So the stereotyping was as early as the 1700s and 1800s that black people were not fit to even work in factories. So to trace that history of it is important for students to understand that diversity questions just didn’t come up in the 1990s. So it’s always been. And women, of course, and child labor was used. We start with the idea that Frederick Taylor came up with the four principles of management and then there was industrialization and then we figured out how to motivate workers and everybody lived happily ever after. Your job is to extract performance out of these people using different techniques and that’s what we teach them (laughing) in the MBA programs.
Scarpino: And you are arguing that it doesn’t really work that way.
Nkomo: It doesn’t really work that way. It’s more complex than that.
Scarpino: Who do you admire? Let’s start with scholars; people’s work you admire.
Nkomo: I admire Jim Walsh. He is a true human being. I admire the work of Alice Eagly, who has done a lot of stuff on women in leadership. I admire the work of Al Reid (spelling???). I’ve met Edgar Schein and I really like his careful thinking. He’s deceased now, but Clayton Alderfer. Clayton Alderfer really supported myself and my colleague, Ella, when we were asking these difficult questions. He kept encouraging us and he, himself, was doing a lot of work on race relations in organizations, Clayton Alderfer. The other person I admire a lot is some of the feminist scholars, Audre Lorde. It’s not purely management scholars. Audre Lorde was a very prolific black feminist who talked about the challenges of women of color.
Scarpino: I’m showing my ignorance here, but did you know her?
Nkomo: I saw her speak. I didn’t know her personally.
Scarpino: We’re going to narrow down here for a little bit and I want to ask you when and where you were born.
Nkomo: I was born on the 17th of March, St. Patrick’s Day, 1947, in Tignall, Georgia.
Nkomo: Tignall, T-I-G-N-A-L-L.
Scarpino: What part of Georgia is it?
Nkomo: Northeast Georgia. The town closest to it would be Washington, Georgia, but it’s close to the South Carolina border.
Scarpino: As a small child, you lived in Tignall, Georgia?
Nkomo: Up to the age of, I want to say the age of four. I don’t remember much of it. I just have images in my mind but I was young. My parents had gone to New York.
Scarpino: So you really grew up in the South Bronx?
Nkomo: I grew up in the Bronx.
Scarpino: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Nkomo: I have nine brothers and sisters.
Scarpino: Older or younger?
Nkomo: I’m the fourth oldest.
Scarpino: You talked a little bit about your parents. Can you add anything to what you said about who they were as people and what they did?
Nkomo: Well, yeah, my mother came from a family of eight children, a very close-knit family, a kind of whole family. My grandfather, Lem Eadsley (Spelling???) was in the Army, World War I. I have a picture of him in his Army uniform. I got to see him later on. Once my parents were in New York, we would go visit their homestead in the summertime. So I remember my grandfather saying, “Yeah, I was in World War I. I didn’t see any enemies. I saw a lot of potatoes.” (laughing) So he was a cook. But he had very good carpentry skills, so he was a carpenter. After World War I, they gave them all land so he got a little plot there in the woods of Tignall and he built his own house because he was good with carpentry and I was born in that house. So I got to know him. He died in 1965. I was already in high school so I got to see him as an adult. My mother was very close to her father. She was heavily influenced by her father. She was the smartest child in the family. She doesn’t like to say that, but my sense was she was very bright. So they sent her off to school because, at that time, she could only go to I think the fifth or sixth grade in the local schools. And for black people, if you wanted to go on -- her father wanted her to be a teacher, so he arranged for her to go to school, I want to say maybe like Atlanta, a bigger city. They had the colored normal school or something where she could go now and train to be a teacher of other black children. So he sent her off the first year when she was about 16 or something and she had to board with people, which meant he had to give her money to go there. What my mother told me is that she went the first year and she was in a boarding house with some other colored people. She would go to school and she was doing well. But she came home at Christmastime and my grandfather was struggling and she said her grandfather didn’t have any shoes -- I mean her father had no shoes. He was walking around with very bad shoes in the snow and the cold. So she didn’t tell him the truth. She told him, “I don’t like that school. I don’t want to go back.” So she ended her education and stayed home to help her father.
Scarpino: With one semester of normal school.
Nkomo: Exactly. So she didn’t go back. But, anyway, that just tells you about that. My father was raised in the opposite. He was an orphan and so he had a pretty rough childhood. He never really had a kind of family setting. He knew his father, my grandfather -- I’m doing this research now so this is why I know this because I’m doing this in my retirement. My grandfather on my father’s side worked for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. He was a roustabout in the circus.
Scarpino: Put up the tents…
Nkomo: Put up the tents and when they needed help, he would be a clown because he was black but if he put the clown face on, they didn’t know. He was itinerant, he was moving around all the time, so my father didn’t really have a steady home life.
Scarpino: Did your father move with his father?
Nkomo: No. His father left him with relatives, you see. He couldn’t take him. He was too young. So he didn’t really grow up in a – my mother grew up in a very stable family and my father grew up in a more not well-structured family. But they got married and they moved to New York and we first lived with my father’s stepmother. We lived in Brooklyn, Bedford-Stuyvesant. We lived in Brooklyn with them. My stepmother had a three-story house in Bedford-Stuyvesant. We lived with them for a while until my father could save enough money. That’s when we left there and we moved to Manhattan for a couple of years. But then most of the years were in the Bronx.
Scarpino: It was Brooklyn to Manhattan to the South Bronx.
Nkomo: That’s right.
Scarpino: So most of the years that you would remember would be…
Nkomo: I went to the elementary school. By the time I got to the South Bronx, I think I went to the second or third grade, so I went to elementary school there. I went to junior high and I went to high school. I graduated from Monroe High School.
Scarpino: I read somewhere that when you were in the Bronx, you lived in the Soundview Projects.
Nkomo: That’s right.
Scarpino: And what was that?
Nkomo: It’s low income housing for people who were on welfare. We were on welfare. My father could not earn enough money, too many children. So we lived in subsidized housing. A flat, an apartment that had four bedrooms.
Scarpino: We talked at the beginning, or you talked at the beginning, some about your parents but what did your parents want for their children?
Nkomo: Oh, one thing my mother and father always agreed on, “you will get an education; we did not.” My father and my mother would say, “If there’s a breath left in my body, you will graduate from high school.” Their aspirations were to get a high school education, which I understood where that came from because they hadn’t done that. My father worked as a short order cook. He spent most of his time on his feet and he would come home and my mother would help him soak his feet in water with Epsom salt and he would just say, “Look at this. You don’t want to do this. Look at your father’s feet. You can do better.” So my mother and father, you could not play around with school. (laughing)
Scarpino: (laughing) You did your homework.
Nkomo: We had to, my mother, yeah my mother -- we didn’t know, you know when you’re a child, you don’t know what your parents’ education really is, but I remember my mother used to evidently fool us all the time. So here we are because we are mostly a year apart. We’re not that many years in difference. So my mother would make us sit on the floor with our homework and kind of like do your homework. She would say, “Okay, are you finished? Show me.” Now at some point, we don’t think she was really able to check it, but it was a ritual that after dinner everybody got their homework out and we sat down and we did it. My mother was very regimented. She was home and so we were under lock and key. Where we lived in the projects, because we lived in those projects on the sixth floor, and in New York you walked to school so she could see the path from the elementary school and she would say, “When the bell rings, I’ll be lookin’ out the window and you walk straight home.” (laughing) So we knew, it’s 3:00…
Scarpino: No fooling around.
Nkomo: No fooling around, go home. So we were very protected as children by my mother and father. They kept a tight leash on us. My father used to say, “There’s nothing for you out on those streets. Everything you need is in those books, so keep your heads in the books.” On Friday, my mother would take us to the public library and each of us had to check out six books to keep us busy on the weekend. So that was our ritual. Every Friday, we went to the public library and picked out six books, you walked back to the projects and the books were your company for the weekend.
Scarpino: Was that a typical experience for families living in the projects?
Nkomo: No. It wasn’t, unfortunately. There were others like us but that was one of the things that my mother and father guarded against. They would say, “Don’t hang out with those children and their parents. Don’t pay attention to them.” So they monitored who are friends were and what we could do. So we couldn’t just go out of the house and sit around and hang on the streets. That was not allowed.
Scarpino: I think that I need to -- just because Robert’s coming in. We’ll talk this afternoon.
Nkomo: Yeah, we have a time? Two-something?
Scarpino: I’ll just turn this off.(END NKOMO 1st SESSION 10.14.17)
Scarpino: Our primary is live. As I said when the recorder was off, I’m going to ask your permission to record this interview, to have the interview transcribed, to deposit the audio and the transcription with the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, with the International Leadership Association and with the Tobias Center with the understanding that they’ll make it available to their patrons, that your name will be associated with what you say, and they may post all or part of it to the internet. Are you alright with that?
Nkomo: I’m happy with that, yes.
Scarpino: Thank you very much. I’m speaking to Stella Nkomo and this is the second session, Saturday, October 14, 2017, and we are in the SQUARE Conference Center in Brussels in association with the International Leadership Association’s annual meeting. When we left off this morning, we ranged broadly over the topic of leadership and then we talked about you growing up and so on and so forth. I want to pick up with a question there related to something I read about you. It touches on something that you’ve already said, but when you were in high school, you mentioned that your family had attended, or your mother had her children go to a mostly white church and you did. You mentioned some difficulties between the congregation and the pastor, who you admired. But one of the things that I read was that there was a situation where the pastor and some members of the congregation wanted to authorize a church bus to take members of the congregation…
Nkomo: That’s right.
Scarpino: …to see Martin Luther King, the 1963 March on Washington, I assume.
Nkomo: It was mostly the black members.
Scarpino: And the congregation – the white members said, “No, we don’t want to do this.”
Nkomo: Yeah. Exactly. It’s related to all of that, yes.
Scarpino: So, I have two questions. One is, did you go to the March on Washington?
Nkomo: No, I didn’t go. My mother didn’t let me go, but my oldest sister went. So in the church, we were there. We were mostly the black people. There with a couple of other black people. My oldest sister, Mamie, she did go. I did not make it to the March on Washington. I watched it on television.
Nkomo: So it was more like the black members of the church with the support of the pastor who wanted to go.
Scarpino: What was the outcome of that? Because you resisted, right? You stood up…
Nkomo: We resisted and what happened – my mother said, “You can’t do that.” But we did it. We didn’t actually – well, we told my mother we were going to do it. And what we did following that decision when they didn’t authorize the bus and didn’t really want the Bethlehem Lutheran Church associated with this event, we picketed the church.
Scarpino: Oh my goodness. Signs and everything?
Nkomo: We made signs. We made signs and stood in front of the church and said, “Bethlehem Lutheran Church is a racist church.”
Scarpino: Oh my! (laughing)
Nkomo: There were about five of us, including me – I think I was about 15 or 16 -- standing there with these placards. And when those people came that morning, Phil, the hatred – they were so angry at us, it was palpable. And after that day, I never went back to the church again. They were very angry with us. It kind of turned my taste off for religion because I saw that profound hypocrisy and also the fact that Martin Luther King was a minister himself, he was a man of God. So, I didn’t quite understand it and I couldn’t – I just lost faith in religion. I lost faith in the people who would come every Sunday. They were devout Lutherans and they hated us. I remember we went home and we were kind of crying, upset with my mother, and my mother said, “That’s their church. It wasn’t your church. Of course they’re going to be upset with you.” In a kind of sense, like, yeah, well you should have expected that when you decided to do that. I think it kind of triggered in me the importance of standing up for what you believe in but, I tell you, it really soured me towards religion because I couldn’t – people know me like that -- I cannot take hypocrisy very well. If you’re saying this and you’re doing that, that’s a deal-breaker for me. It’s a deal-breaker for me.
Scarpino: It does raise some interesting issues, doesn’t it? About what does it mean to be a religious person?
Nkomo: Exactly. It raised it for me – and the contradiction and the whole, you know, this is about social justice, so it kind of just opened my eyes to a lot of things about honesty and standing up for what you believe in and also in the sense that I had an idealistic view that people who…
Scarpino: Fifteen-year-olds should have an idealistic view. (laughing)
Nkomo: Yeah, well, that people who are religious and God-fearing would do the right thing all the time. So that was a little bit disserting – kind of upsetting that, you know, I would have expected it from maybe some stereotypical guy down in Alabama, saying, “Don’t go there.” But here people in the northeast, you think you’re living in New York, kind of a progressive area. But I could distinguish – and I really felt bad for the minister because he really was doing the right thing. But they also punished him.
Scarpino: It cost him his job.
Nkomo: Yeah. Cost him his job. So that was – so I’m – people like that. People know, like, I do have a high tolerance but when I see hypocrisy or injustice, I will speak up.
Scarpino: Did you lead that effort?
Scarpino: Was it your idea to be out there with signs?
Nkomo: No, no, it was a collective effort. It was a collective effort. I was a younger in that group, but yeah.
Scarpino: If I’ve got the right date, here, you entered James Monroe High School in 1960.
Nkomo: Yeah, I know I graduated in 1964. I can’t remember the division between junior high school and high school, but I think, yeah, I think we started high school in the ninth grade in those days. I can’t remember, or the 10th.
Scarpino: I made the assumption it was ninth when I figured it out just because that’s the system I grew up in.
Nkomo: Yeah. So that would make sense, yes.
Scarpino: So it was about 1960. You describe that high school as racially mixed and you took the bus from the Soundview Projects.
Nkomo: Yeah, we were bussed in because – yeah, we were bussed in.
Scarpino: So you wrote – was that actually a part of busing…
Nkomo: Yeah, that was part of the first busing. We were part of the busing group. James Monroe High School had traditionally been mostly Jewish. It was there on Westchester Avenue and the projects were maybe like a mile and a half from Westchester Avenue because we would get off the subway there and walk to the projects. So that was a white, middle class, working class neighborhood, mostly Jewish.
Scarpino: Brown v. Board was 1954, so this was an effort – it wasn’t just you looking for a school, this was part of desegregation.
Nkomo: No, we were bused in. So we used to ride the bus. But most of the kids in that school were white, you know? If you saw my yearbook, you would see that it was mostly white students.
Scarpino: What did you think about being part of an organized desegregation effort?
Nkomo: I don’t think it really, at that moment – we were just happy to go to a good school because our parents had stressed so much the importance of education, so it was a very good school at the time. We felt really glad that we would be able to go there. We did realize that there was a difference because, at the end of the day, we had to leave that neighborhood and go back to the projects. We were also fairly poor, so it was more looking at those distinctions versus, “Okay, I’m being bused in.” It was more understanding how different we were from the other kids in terms of skin color but also in terms of income.
Scarpino: There were class and race differences?
Nkomo: There was class and race difference, and the fact that people could tell that you were on welfare because we would get the lunch, where they would have money to buy lunch. It was more that I remember, or people making fun of us – some of it racist but a lot of it was more teenage stuff. My sisters and I – most of us were about a year apart, so we would share clothes. We shared clothes. So kids would say, “Oh, if Mamie wears it on Monday, you might see it on Ollie or Stella on Wednesday.” So that kind of thing. But it was more around the poverty than anything, but what could we do? We didn’t have that many clothes, so we used to share them. (laughing)
Scarpino: You do what you have to, right?
Nkomo: We do what we have to do.
Scarpino: Something that you wrote about that experience really struck me. You wrote, “The distance I had to cover physically was short compared to the cultural distance between me and my mostly Jewish middle and working class classmates.” What was it like to cross that cultural divide?
Nkomo: It was difficult. It was difficult because I didn’t understand a lot of what they were doing. I knew nothing about Jewish people because the Soundview Projects, that whole – when I think about that whole building, it was mostly poor black people, Spanish people. So I had never been that close around a lot of Jewish white kids with their traditions and also, yeah, it was more that context and always again. Because I took the secretarial – I took the commercial course. So I was typically the only black person in my classes. Maybe there were two other, but most of the time I was the only one. So it was kind of like, “Who are my friends?” “Who are my friends?” I had friends in the projects but when I went to school, I didn’t have that many friends. And also the idea that it took a while – I did develop some good friendships. But that first year was a very lonely year. I remember that. You just kind of go to class and you didn’t get invited anywhere. You didn’t get invited to birthdays, you know?
Scarpino: All the things teenagers do.
Nkomo: Yeah. When you’re in school, you’re spending most of your time in school and so you could see after school kids were hanging out or they would be talking about some school event coming up and what they were going to wear, and you’re just not part of that conversation. And you really didn’t want people to know that – well they know but you didn’t really want to talk about it, you know? So the kids would come home from the weekends and they’d talk about the stuff they’d done and I didn’t have anything to add to that because we had a good life, but we didn’t really go a lot of places. We didn’t go on vacations, you know? We went to Coney Island (laughing) -- once in a while, my father would take us to Coney Island but I couldn’t say, “Oh, we went on holiday,” or “We went down to Florida.” So you feel that as a young person.
Scarpino: Do you feel as though you got a good education there?
Nkomo: Oh, yeah, I did. There were very good teachers there, but the only – I didn’t get the education I probably should have gotten because, in junior high school, when you make that – I remember the counselor in junior high school when I got to the eighth grade and they counsel you about high school and you have to decide what track you’re going to take because they had the college track, the commercial track and the vocational track for the boys.
Scarpino: My high school was like that too.
Nkomo: So that’s the system and I said, “Oh, I want to go to college.” And my counselor said, “No, you can’t…” I remember he said, “No, you cannot go to college.” And my answer was like, “Why not?” He said, “Well, you’re very poor, you come from a big family. What you should think about is following a track where you can get a job immediately so you can help your family.” And I remember thinking, “Yeah, that makes sense. Maybe I should.” So I signed up for the commercial track.
Scarpino: That was Mr. Goldman.
Nkomo: Yes. You remember, yeah.
Scarpino: Well, I actually remember the name of my high school guidance counselor because he told my mother I wasn’t college material (laughing).
Nkomo: Yes, exactly. So you were steered, but it made sense to me because I had seen my father struggling and my oldest sister, Mamie, and then Ollie, they were just about finishing up in high school so, yeah, I could help. So I thought, “Okay, commercial, I’ll do it.”
Scarpino: Did you help for a while?
Nkomo: Oh, yeah. Well, I’ll tell you, my mother and father had us on lockdown (laughing), lockdown. So I graduated from high school, I was 17, I got a job at a bank down in the village but I still lived at home. So I would contribute. We all contributed. All of us. The first four of us, we always contributed to support my father.
Scarpino: I read an interesting piece that I think you sent to me but I’d also read. Just sort of play off some of the things that we’ve talked about. The piece is titled “Postcards from the Borderlands: Building a Career from the Outside/Within” and you coauthored that with Ella Edmondson Bell, published in 1999 in The Journal of Career Development. I had it, but you also sent it to me which caused me to believe that you believed it said something important about you. You sent me two articles and that was one of them. In this article, you wrote, and I’ll read it for the benefit of anybody using this, you said, “Building careers in the perilous space between the multiple demands of two cultures. As black women scholars, we function within an outside white academia. Our visibility and minority status are inseparable, ever present, always apparent. At the same time, our status as academics makes us at times strangers in our own ethnic community, a community we want to uplift. We end up doing our work from the borderlands, belonging and feeling a part of two worlds, yet never at home in either.” By the time I read this, I had done a lot of background reading on you on your life and your career. And, for me, it was like the final turn on an old 35 mm camera that brought the image into focus. I want to talk more about some of these ideas here in a few minutes, but in seeking to understand your life and career, it seems to me that the idea of borders and maybe refusing to accept the limits of borders imposed by others is really a reasonable way to look at your entire life and your entire career.
Nkomo: I think so, and crossing borders because -- I told somebody, here’s the simple story for me. So my parents came from the south. If you met my parents, very much southerners, so we ate southern food. Very close-knit family, kind of protected because the streets were not great, and then kind of staying in a very nuclear situation. Then you think that your world, Phil – I had no idea of life much outside of the projects because when you live in a – maybe you know this, even from your own experiences – when you live in the projects, the projects are low income housing. They have their own culture, their own ways of doing things and so you think that’s your world. I used to think that was the world. I mean, maybe we went to Manhattan a couple of times as children, but we would go to 114th Street and Park Avenue because they had cheap shops there. My mother would go there at Christmastime to buy us clothes, but I had no idea of the corporate world, five-star hotels, hadn’t been on an airplane, so your world looks like this. Then you start going out, like I said, going to James Monroe High School and here’s these Jewish kids, not that they were wealthy wealthy, but compared to us, they’d had a lot of experiences that I hadn’t had and sometimes they would talk about things and I really couldn’t connect. And the other thing, because we were so poor, I told somebody, I didn’t realize that spaghetti was eaten with a red sauce (laughing) until I started working down it the bank and the tellers and I, on a Friday night -- which my father did allow -- on Friday night I could go with the girlfriends from the bank. We’d go out and have a dinner and I went to Mama Leone’s Restaurant (laughing). And there – I’m like, “Okay,” because my mother – it was a way to stretch food. So she’d buy spaghetti towards the end of the week because my father got paid weekly. So normally about Wednesday or Thursday, it’s getting a little shaky and she would buy spaghetti and then buy margarine and melt it. So we would eat spaghetti with margarine because it filled us up, ten kids.
Scarpino: It was a way to fill up all those kids (laughing).
Nkomo: To fill up the kids. But the thing my mother and father taught us was experiencing. My mother used to give us – now when I think about it, I think it was not politically correct advice – she would say, “What are those white kids doing? That’s what you should be doing if you want to get a good education.” She would always say, “What are they doing? What are they talking about? Where are they going?” She kind of taught us to impose yourself and don’t hold back.
Scarpino: That part was pretty good advice (laughing).
Nkomo: It was good advice. I mean, it’s sort of like acculturation. She would say, “Okay, acculturate.” So if the girls – she would say, “If they invite you, you should go.” And that’s how I met a couple of my very good friends in high school, nice young ladies who said, “Oh, you know, let’s study together. You can come to my house and before you go home, let’s study together for the test.” So that’s how I made some friends. Then I would see their house and they’d have stuff. I’m thinking, “Oh, wow, this is interesting. I’d like to have this.” So it’s about broadening one’s horizons. I always tell young people that in South Africa, “Where you are in that shanty, that’s not the world. There’s a lot out there, kiddo, and the sooner you can see that, the broader sense you will have.” So that kind of helped me and that’s always been my strategy. So even when I got to South Africa, like, I was really afraid. I told people I was over 50 when I went to South Africa but I was petrified in a sense of, okay, this is going to be another border crossing, using your phrasing. Will I be able to do it? I wasn’t quite sure if I would be able to make a contribution there. Here I’m coming from a totally different environment. So, yeah, so I think that’s right, but I think that the thing that I did learn is cross the border. So when kids – like at the bank, I know my mother said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “Oh, some of the girls – they said we should go to Bear Mountain. They’re going to go skiing.” My mother said, “Skiing? Like I’ve seen on television? Are you sure?” I said, “Yeah I just want to see what it is.” So I went on ski trips. (laughing)
Scarpino: (Laughing) Good for you. That must have been kind of scary to get up on that.
Nkomo: It was scary but every time you went, you kind of said, “Oh, wow, there’s more out here. There’s more out here.” And that’s how I decided to go eventually to get my college education, which my counselor had told me I couldn’t. Because I was in the bank, I was a secretary, I had a very nice boss, Mr. Elder, very nice man. But if you work as a secretary in a bank, there’s not a lot of challenge there, I can tell you that, because it was the same old stuff where, you know, these letters you write are pretty standard. I could type, I could do shorthand. The customers – you knew the customers. I got to the point I was memorizing account numbers. So if you walked in, I would say, “Oh, Mr. Scarpino. Okay, fine.” And you would say, “Help me with this.” I’d be like “Okay, I’ve got your number, I know it,” and I would help. Or, “You want to see Mr. Elder? Okay, I’ll make sure you see him.” My boss got to the point, he said, “You know that letter. I don’t need to dictate it to you, Stella.” And I thought, “Maybe I should be doing more.” But the thing that made me do more was I would see these young white guys come into the bank and they were sent around to branches, so they were typically people who had either gotten a B degree in business or MBA. And they would send them to the branches and they’d be there like three weeks and they would learn what a branch does. Not that they were going to stay there, they were going to go to the corporate office. But this was for them to learn, how does a branch operate? And they’d ask me questions like “How does this work? What do you do with this? How do you handle this?” “Talk to my boss.” So finally, I went to my boss one day and I said to him, “You know, these guys ask me a lot of silly questions but they’re going to be big-time – they’re going to be like you. How do I become like you?” And he said, “Are you really interested?” I said, “I want to know. How do you do this?” That’s the other thing. I couldn’t ask my father. He’d never done it. And he said, “Well, Stella, you’re going to have to first get a college degree and then you can think about getting an MBA.” That was the first I’d heard of an MBA. I didn’t really know that. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” So I started going to school at night.
Scarpino: Where did you go?
Nkomo: I went to Bronx Community College because I’d done that commercial track, so I didn’t have the sciences and the math. So I went to Bronx Community College for two years at night to get the college prep courses, then I took the SAT and I was going to go to City University. I was going to stay in the city. I was still living at home. I was going to go to City University of New York, which is a very good school. But I was in – one of the people tutoring us – all of us who were trying to make the transition back into university and, God bless New York State, they had a very good programs for you – one of the teachers was a young woman, a young white woman, very nice. She was helping us with one of the classes, I can’t remember – she was a tutor. They gave us free tutoring and I would go to the tutoring.
Scarpino: I think it was Sociology.
Nkomo: Sociology. Thank you.
Scarpino: I just read it two days ago. (laughing)
Nkomo: Yeah, that’s right. So, yes. So I had taken a Sociology class and, yeah, I remember her. I can’t remember her name, but I can see her face. She had blonde hair. She was a doctoral student and this was how she earned some money, by teaching us sociology. I don’t know if she took an interest in me or I was asking her questions. So I was like, “Oh, doctoral. What are you doing with that?” And so she told me about it, but I didn’t think about a Ph.D. then. But she said to me, “There’s a small college in Rode Island and they’re looking for African American students. I think you ought to look at that because they have scholarships and you could go to school free.” And then I was like, “Oh, that means I would have to quit my job, leave New York.” But I did go and talk to them at Bryant University and they said, “We can admit you.” And I got my undergraduate education with a scholarship. So I left New York and went to Rhode Island – Smithfield, Rhode Island.
Scarpino: That’s one of the questions I was going to ask you. How in the world did you get from the South Bronx to Smithfield, Rhode Island?
Nkomo: That’s how. Because of that opportunity. And that’s the only thing I tell young people, “When a door opens, be brave enough to go through it.” I mean, it was sort of like leaving the family, leaving – I was still living at home/ And I said, “You know what? I’m going to go.” And I went there and it was out in the boondocks and it was Bryant College which was started by the Tupperware family. It’s a private university (laughing), I didn’t know any of that. Handful of black students. I could see why they wanted black students. I went there and I thought I wanted to be a teacher, so I studied Business Education in Rhode Island. Now it’s Bryant University.
Scarpino: I looked it up on the internet. I’m going to back up a little bit here. We talked about crossing borders and pushing borders and the church’s decision not to send a bus to march on Washington and the ride home from James Monroe High School and your ultimate resistance to being placed on a commercial track in high school. So, here’s the question: As I look at your career and your life, I’ve been doing it for a week or two weeks, this pushing borders seems to be a part of who you are as a person, and I’m wondering if that started when you were a teenager in the south Bronx. Is that the point at which you said, “I’m not going to do this, you know? I don’t have to do what other people tell me to do.”
Nkomo: No, no. I wanted a different life. That I know. My mother always said that. She said, “You’re my child who went the farthest away.” But I didn’t want to have what I saw my parents -- and I didn’t like the projects. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it because I felt like it was almost confining and also the dynamics there where people try to hold you back. They used to say, “Oh, those brown girls think they’re different from us.” So it wasn’t just me, it was also my sisters. And I think it’s again that voice of my mother and father. My father’s voice – I can here it now – he would say, “There’s nothing here for you in these projects.” Meaning, like, “Get out.” That was the message that I got. And then as I began to go out and seeing possibilities and what could be done, it just encouraged me to go more and more. I didn’t have to have the life that I saw other people – like a lot of the young girls around me were ending up pregnant or satisfied with things. And I just thought, “No, I’m going to go as far as I can.” As I told you, sitting in the bank and just feeling that my brain was being wasted, I could see that I could understand things. So I thought, “No, I think I could do more than just be a secretary.” There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary but I thought “I could do more. Why can’t I be like one of those guys who’s coming in here and doing a management position?”
Scarpino: And your boss encouraged you.
Nkomo: And the boss encouraged me. I always told people that you need other people who kind of help to open the door or push you through it. So my boss was – yeah he told me, “Go to school.” And that’s happened to me more than – that’s how I got my Ph.D., too. (laughing) When I finished my MBA, I went and had conversations with corporate America. But then the University of Rhode Island, because I had been a top student and they didn’t have a lot of diversity, they said, “Oh, could you teach Principles of Management for us at night?” Well, teach -- they brought me on as a lecturer. And I did that and I really liked it. I thought, “Okay, I didn’t want to do high school teaching because I had done some of the student teaching and it was not – you could see that it was very difficult. I could see it was very difficult to have an impact because they would give you this curriculum and say, “This is what you’re going to teach,” and then they would time you. I guess I’m not a good person with that kind of thing. They would time you, like you have to cover this amount of the material in this amount of time and then they would mark you down on your student teaching. I said, “But I don’t think the kids understood, so I spent more time on that.” “No, you needed to move on.” I thought, “No, no, no, no.”
Scarpino: You mentioned that in a successful career, successful life, one always needs people who at key times will hold the door open, so to speak.
Scarpino: So you had a long career, you’ve become extraordinarily successful. Are you standing there holding the door open now?
Nkomo: Yes. I do that. I see it as one the main things I can do. I can use my power or my stature to help other people. I always use that motto – it’s not my own -- from the Negro Women’s Clubs Association where they talk about lifting others as you climb. This is what I need to do now. In South Africa, that’s what I’m doing. This is why they’re able to keep me beyond retirement. I want to help young academics, particularly women and black people.
Scarpino: I should follow up on that immediately. The University of Pretoria is keeping you beyond retirement?
Nkomo: Yeah. I’m a strategic professor and my main job is to mentor and support young academics.
Scarpino: So you’re still employed by the university?
Nkomo: Yes. They pay me a third of what I was making before but that’s fine (laughing). So I get a salary, so I’m still employed with them. My title is Strategic Professor, still in the faculty and in the Department of Human Resource Management. So I have two doctoral students who I’m finishing up with, but my other big role is to mentor and support young academics in the faculty. I help them with finding their scholarly voice, encouraging them on their Ph.D.’s, they can write to me for advice. I just had one who wrote to me and said, “Thank you, Prof, so much for helping me with my promotion application. I did get promoted.” So I’m like a mentor/sponsor, yeah, which I love. That I love. I can do that without pay.
Scarpino: So South Africa. We’ll talk more about it in a few minutes, but you mentioned that when you went to South Africa as a woman more than 50 years old that you were nervous about doing it. So I’m trying to think of a way to phrase this, but did the people that you met there have expectations of your ability to navigate that culture because you’re African American? I mean, did that change the way they thought you could fit in or function or their expectations of you in that society?
Nkomo: Well, it’s interesting. It’s too…
Scarpino: I mean, I would imagine if I went there, it would be different.
Nkomo: Maybe so, but I think the first thing that you realize, though, this is what’s interesting, because of the accent, you’re first identified as an American.
Scarpino: You don’t have a South African accent that I can hear.
Nkomo: No. You’re first identified as an American, so that’s what I always tell people, “If you’re African American, you will go there.” Like, when I first got there, people would see me – if black people saw me, they immediately thought I was a black South African woman but as soon as I opened my mouth, “Oh! Where are you from?” “America.” Then they kind of use their stereotypes of Americans. The same with whites. Now the whites -- initially in Pretoria, I remember the whites would see me and they would just assume I was a black South African. So either they would – like, for example, I went into one store and I was kind of walking around touching things and the white owner came up to me and said, “Don’t touch that! What are you doing!” She didn’t say it in English, she said it in Afrikaans, I think, but it was clear that she was telling me, “Don’t touch anything.” And I turned around and I said, “But, excuse me, I’m trying to see if I want to buy that.” And as soon as she heard the American accent, she said, “Oh, I’m sorry! I apologize! I thought you were…” She didn’t finish the sentence, but she thought I was a black South African. So, yeah. But I can tell you, South Africans are very friendly people and they generally like Americans (laughing). It’s actually annoying because in the beginning, a lot of people would say, “Why did you come here? America is the greatest country in the world. Why are you here?” So I would get some of that, in the sense that I’ve left this beautiful haven to come to South Africa. I think that black people immediately do have affinity with you, yes. I think my white colleagues were curious about me because when I got to the University of South Africa and I went to the Graduate School of Business Leadership, there were no female full professors in that whole faculty. So I was the first female and the first black full professor.
Scarpino: And you came in with that rank?
Nkomo: I came in with that rank. So when they appointed me, they appointed me at that rank. The South African higher education system is not like the U.S. The professors rule the roost. For example, the Appointments Committee, you have to be a full professor; Promotion Committee, full professor; decisions about the faculty, full professor. So I’m getting to sit in with all these full professors who were mostly white Africana men. So one of my challenges was that they would speak in Afrikaans.
Scarpino: Do you speak any Afrikaans now?
Nkomo: No. I kept trying to explain to them. So some of it was – I realized – see that’s the other thing I learned from my mother: Don’t assume it’s about you. So in the beginning, I would go to these meetings and they’re conducting the meeting in Afrikaans. So I explained to them, “You know, I come from the U.S.A. We don’t have that language there. I couldn’t have learned it if I wanted to. But I know all of you speak English, so could we have this meeting in English?” And they would kind of look at me, but some of them were determined to exclude me. Some would try to adapt. So it was a struggle, Phil, in the beginning because it was a way for me not to have impact by not having the language. Then I realized that there were two motives for it. One was, “How dare you? We’re going to exclude you. We don’t have to include you.” But the other was that there were some of them who were very embarrassed by their inability to speak English and they didn’t want to show that to me. “I’m a professor but I can’t speak English.” So people said, “What did you do?” I said, “Well, you know, I’m a seasoned person. I didn’t fight with them. I would just remind them. About the third meeting I said, no, these people are hard-headed.” So what I did, I started taking work to the meetings. And they might start out in English but they would quickly move on to speaking Afrikaans, it was natural for them. So I would just sit there and start doing other work, very obviously, and that bothered them. They would say, “What are you doing?” Then they would speak English. “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, evidently you don’t need my input, so I’m busy doing my work. I have to come to the meeting but I don’t know what you’re talking about, so I brought some marking.” And it was interesting because, then after that, they started speaking English and then some of them became very supportive. They would stop and explain things to me. Yeah. So again, the hardest part of the transition was: What can I teach my students that’s of value? That’s what I was most afraid about because I had been teaching in the U.S.; I knew U.S. companies; I knew about the corporate structure in the U.S.; I understood organizations in the U.S. I understood all of that. The examples I had; you know, when you’ve been teaching a long time, you have certain examples you use, so I thought, “I’m going to have to start all my material over again. Will the students see me as irrelevant? This country is going through major changes. What can I even offer from the U.S. that’s never experienced anything like this?” So those were my fears – that I wouldn’t be relevant in the class.
Scarpino: You figured it out, though.
Nkomo: I figured it out and the figuring out was to simply, again, educate yourself or learning from the students. So I would have students and say, “Well, can you give an example of this?” And I’m not a person afraid to say, “Well, you know what? I don’t know about that.” Because students would ask me impossible questions. “Professor, I’m the Director General for the Health Department and we have to roll out a major HIV campaign and people don’t want to speak about HIV. How should I handle that as a leader (laughing)?” So part of it was, you know, in the U.S., you teach in the MBA, you don’t get those kind of questions that are like that. The questions were, like, this is real. I’m right in the middle of difficult change and so, yeah. The students pressed me but I learned a lot from the students by them pressing me or trying to see, “How do I do this here?” But the sad thing though, Phil, was that they were using mostly American textbooks.
Scarpino: That’s not unusual, though.
Nkomo: No, it’s not unusual.
Scarpino: I mean, South Africa isn’t the only place that happens.
Nkomo: No. But you know what’s shocking about it is that I thought maybe there was something different. But of course, I realized, no it could not be anything different. And the other aspect was on the personal level with my husband. My husband left South Africa when he was 18 and so all the time we were together, I didn’t have in-laws, you know? He had to deal with my family. I had met his parents but that was more short-term, we met them. But now I was in South Africa, so now it was I was a daughter-in-law, but they don’t use that word. But it was nice to be able to be there to get to know his family. So there was a little anxiety around that. Would they be able to relate to me? Would I be able to relate to them because of the language? They can speak English but not as well as they probably would want to. It turned out to be very good because he has a lovely family.
Scarpino: So the language that they speak is…?
Nkomo: Well his family, Sotho and Zulu. That’s one of the things that I give myself a bad mark on; I haven’t been able to spend the time to learn the language because it’s easy in South Africa because most people speak English. So my mother-in-law and even my father-in-law could speak enough English to communicate with me, so then you get lazy. It’s better to go to a country where you’re forced (laughing). You know?
Scarpino: Yeah. At one point in my background research, I read a high level review of your scholarship which made the observation that your work pushes boundaries and stimulates the use of new theoretical and methodological approaches in the field. So another example of you pushing boundaries, and I’m assuming you’d agree with that, that your work pushes boundaries, but can you talk a little bit about how your work pushes boundaries in your field?
Nkomo: Well, the first one is bringing up conversations that people don’t want to talk about. The article that people really kind of know me for is the one I wrote in 1992, “The Emperor has no Clothes: Rewriting Race in Organization Studies,” because…
Scarpino: That’s your most cited article?
Nkomo: It’s the most cited article because it was sort of like pointing to the field and pointing to people to say, “How do we study organizations and management if we don’t talk about race, which is one of the biggest divisions in society?” So I brought a critical perspective and wrote that as a call – more like a movement – that we need to really start looking at this question. So how dare us? And the other thing that made that article a little revolutionary was I wrote it in the first person, which you are not supposed to do in our field. I wrote it in the first person because I didn’t want to point fingers because I also felt that I had been trained that way. You stay with safe topics and we. “So why don’t we?” So I used the we voice and I remember the editor -- after the reviews came in -- the editor wrote to me and said, “We don’t usually publish articles in the Academy of Management Review with the first person, so you probably need to change how you write this.” You know, you want to publish in a top journal. So then I sat down and tried to do it and I couldn’t. So I wrote back to the editor and I said to the editor, I forgot who it was, “I can’t write it that way.” I said, “It will not have the same meaning if I try to write it in the third person because then I’m pointing fingers. Who do I point the fingers at? I’m part of this, too, and I need to get this message across in the first person.” And the editor said yes. I was told later on that me doing that and pushing that changed the journal’s view that people can write in the first person (laughing). But I was a genuine thing. I wasn’t intending to change the way we communicate, it was to say that, “I’m saying some pretty blunt accusations here – that we’re all implicit in it.” So I think my revolution stuff is more like bringing up taboo topics in the field. Also at the time that I did my work, qualitative research was not really welcomed. As I told you, at UMass they told us, “If you want to have tenure, you have to know how to crunch the numbers.” And a lot of the work I do is by talking to people and looking at life stories.
Scarpino: That’s actually the next thing I want to ask you because, again, this assessment of your work that I read singled out your use of a life story research method. So not really knowing who’s going to listen or use this in the future, for the benefit of those who might, can you explain what the life story research method entails? What is it that you were doing?
Nkomo: Okay. The life story methodology comes from kind of a social – well, interpretivist, really, viewpoint and philosophy that if we want to understand people – any person – a manager, a leader, that a lot about understanding their lived experiences, what is it like to be a manager? What is it like to be a black woman? The best way to do that is that you talk with them about their life story. So the life story methodology tries to get the person’s life story as they present it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that was actually their story, but the way they tell the story tells you something about how they engage the world, how they experience this phenomenon and, also, what contextual things influenced their stories? When Ella and I did the book, Our Separate Ways, the interview protocol was set up in a way that we’d begin with their early lives. We spent a long time thinking – I’m sure you have done that, too, for your own interviews – what’s the best question to start with? And the first question we asked the women, “Tell me about where you grew up.” So you keep your questions very open-ended. And the other thing about the process of asking people about their own lives is also self-disclosure, that you’re willing to share aspect of your own life. So you don’t take this kind of objective, “I’m the interviewer. I have to keep myself out of this.” To help people to tell their story, there might be times when you have to share stories. So you actually go through the phases of their lives, and you let them tell what’s important. You might ask follow-ups but your questions are generally pretty open-ended. What messages did you get from your parents when you were growing up? What are the biggest challenges you’re facing now? So when we did Our Separate Ways, I tell people, “We interviewed 120 women.” But I said, “In terms of data, what we actually got was 120 biographies,” I mean, like this, and very intimate details. And also what the women told us when I first used the methodology, they felt like telling their life stories was almost clinical for them in the sense of understanding themselves and connecting where things came from. So it also seems to have an impact on the people telling the story, as well as the person hearing the story.
Scarpino: It does, doesn’t it?
Nkomo: Yeah. And even yourself, you start remembering things because, like as Ella and I said, we talked to women and then you find there’s another woman, okay, she grew up in the projects, I grew up in the projects, and you find this connection. So, yeah, I love that methodology and I passed it on to some of my students. I have a student now who used the methodology with Indian women in South Africa.
Scarpino: You’ve done the life story approach in the book you did with Ella, what happens to all that information when the book is published? Do you put it in a library? Do you shred it?
Nkomo: Well you know what we did? We’re still trying to give it to people. We did offer it to a couple of the libraries. We tried Simmons. We’re trying others. But, you know, we keep it because a lot of it is recorded. But we promised the women anonymity for that book so we’re very careful with it.
Scarpino: Another question based on that “Postcards” article. You said in there that, “At the same time our status as academics makes us at times strangers in our own ethnic community, a community we want to uplift.” So the question is: Is the commitment and desire to uplift ethnic community, I assume African American or African community, part of the fabric of your professional and personal life?
Nkomo: Yes. Part of it.
Scarpino: Has it been since the beginning?
Nkomo: Pretty much so. I try to get involved in the community and do what I can, so yeah, you feel a commitment and sometimes the community’s immediate family (laughing) in the sense of helping people. You have the wherewithal to help. So I help a lot of people with college applications, just advice. Part of the issue is, in my family, cousins, the bigger family, some have Ph.D.’s but I have other family members who are basically everyday people, don’t have the same experiences I have, who have never been on an airplane. So part of the issue is making sure you can still be part of the family without being highfalutin. I used to laugh because my father, if I went home like at Christmastime and now you’re out in the world and you’re drinking five-star wine and whatnot, and then my father is so happy to offer you some Hebrew National, that very sweet red wine (laughing), you can’t say, “Oh, no, dad, I don’t drink that kind of wine anymore.”
Scarpino: My dad drank until the day he died at 99½ wine that he paid $12.00 a gallon for (laughing).
Nkomo: You know what I mean? But you just need to remember who you are and not to the point that you become so snobbish and so distanced that you can’t hang with the people who supported you or the people that are your family. I was telling somebody about my mother. They said, “You really do respect your mother.” And I say, “You know, I bring people to meet my mother, big colleagues. Like, if she met you, she has no problem…” I’d say, “This is Phil. He’s an historian.” And I’m proud of her, you know? I’m not going to try to hide her. She’s a southern woman, but you would enjoy meeting her because she has kind of taught us like that. I always tell people a simple thing, “I know who I am.” So I’m comfortable trying to go back and forth. So, yes, when I’m with my family, I know how I must engage people. My mother’s always curious about the work I do. She always says, “I don’t fully understand all the work you do, but thanks for trying to explain it to me.” I show her stuff. So I think it’s important that you don’t assume that you can’t share who you are.
Scarpino: I assume your mother is very proud of you.
Nkomo: Oh, she’s very proud. She’s extremely proud.
Scarpino: So Ella knows your mother?
Nkomo: Ella knows my mother. She’s like the other daughter.
Scarpino: She told me a number of stories. She sounds like a very interesting woman.
Nkomo: So, yeah, I’m just saying that sometimes people want to hide their family. I would never hide my mother from anybody, you know, in the sense that she’s – because some people see me, oh, they think my parents must have been middle class and doctors and lawyers. No, they weren’t. They were sharecroppers.
Scarpino: When we talked about your approach to leadership education this morning, one of the things you talked about was encouraging people to know themselves before they can go lead someone else.
Nkomo: Yes. Be comfortable with that.
Scarpino: We talked about some of the things that I’ve got here. So we talked about you working at Manufacturers Hanover Trust…
Nkomo: Oh, yes, no longer around (laughing).
Scarpino: …and your post-high school education and night school and the young sociologist who influenced you, but as a general question, how would you say that growing up in the South Bronx shaped the adult that you became?
Nkomo: Get out (laughing)!
Scarpino: (Laughing) Did you take anything with you when you left?
Nkomo: Well, what I learned is that not everybody is as fortunate and that structures can really make people dysfunctional. It really can. I’m a big believer that if I ever became the Secretary of Housing and whatnot, I would say, “Don’t do that. Don’t put low income people in these kinds of spaces because you will just magnify whatever dynamics are there.” So that’s one of my takeaways, that we really ought to think differently about how we change the cycle of poverty, I really think.
Scarpino: And that’s a leadership issue, isn’t it?
Nkomo: It’s a leadership issue. Because, you see, like people always ask the question, “Why in poor neighborhoods is it so dirty?” Well, first of all, the cleaning people don’t come often, right? And, if your environment has no aesthetics – no gardens, no flowers, no trees, it doesn’t motivate you, really, to say, “Oh this is beautiful. Let me keep it nice.” So you just create a whole bunch of dynamics that say to people, “You’re not valuable.” So that’s why my parents would try to keep us kind of guided because to get into that mindset is very negative. So that’s why I said I wanted to escape that. I thought my life could be more.
Scarpino: They really did create kind of a bubble to protect their children from the harsher aspects of…
Nkomo: Yeah. People knew us. I mean, we couldn’t date (laughing). We couldn’t date.
Scarpino: (Laughing) That’s tough on a teenager.
Nkomo: Yeah, my father was – when we finally got a telephone, if a boy called the house, my father – this kind of family – my father would always answer the phone (laughing) and if a boy said, “Can I speak to Stella?” He’d say, “Young man, who do you think you are that you can call my house and ask to speak to my daughter? No!” I’m telling you, I was working. I finished high school, maybe I was 17 – 1964, yeah. I was 17. I was getting up every day, taking the subway down to Manhattan, working, earning a salary, but I came home and if I wanted to go somewhere, I asked permission from my mother or father. “Is it okay on Friday, some of the girls at the bank are going to go for dinner.” “What time will you be home?” A boy? He needed to come to the house and meet my father. So my parents – some of that was southern…
Scarpino: Having raised a daughter, I kind of approve of that (laughing).
Nkomo: Yeah. Some of that was southern behavior. My father didn’t believe that we should wear pants. He was of the type that young ladies do not wear pants/slacks. And every Saturday night, you had to get ready to go to church on Sunday. I think at the time we thought it was very harsh, but when I look around today, Phil, I say, “You know what? I am glad they did that.” Because we never lived in great neighborhoods. We didn’t live in good neighborhoods and I think that really did help because, you know, all of us kind of made it out.
Scarpino: We talked about Bryant College and how you ended up there, but I will just point out that you did graduate summa cum laude from Bryant College Business Education. In 1976, you graduated from the University of Rhode Island with an MBA. Was that still acting upon the advice from the banker you worked for that, “If you want to be like me, get an MBA?”
Nkomo: Yeah. Remember the Business Education – I was going to teach Business Education in high school and when I did my student teaching and I saw that reality, I thought, “No. Maybe I’ll go into the corporate sector.” I like business. I did like business because I figured out that business is the way the world works, so I thought, “Okay, let me get the MBA and then I can to into corporate.” But then that changed because when I did the MBA and I was looking for a job – and I did get big interviews. I got a big interview with AT&T, the company, and they wanted to put me in an accelerated management development program. I remember they flew me into New York and I went for the interview. I had a little gray business suit on with a vest. I mean, I really looked corporate. But I remember when I got there, Phil, and one of the things they did is they said, “Okay, we’re going to show you how a telephone works.” And they took us into this room and explained to us how telephones work and we were supposed to be all excited now. And I was like, hmm, I don’t know, why aren’t I excited about now knowing the secret of how a telephone works? And then they said, “Well, we’re going to put you in an accelerated program. In five years you will be a district manager, you’ll be making this amount of money.” And then they did assessments and my assessment profile came out great and then they offered me this nice job and I said, “No.” I remember saying to somebody, “You know what? I don’t know why I cannot get excited about selling telephone services.” It’s great, I mean the money would be great. I said, “But you know what? I think I should stick to my plan of education because education changed my life.” Maybe high school wasn’t the right thing. So that’s – luckily – serendipity. Then URI because they needed to have more black academics. The Dean said, “Oh, you were one of the top MBA students. Would you come and teach as a lecturer to teach Principles of Management?” And so that’s how I got started in higher education. He gave me a contract to teach Principles of Management. It was a one year contract.
Scarpino: That’s one of the questions I wanted to ask you is, with your hard-won MBA, how did you end up teaching Principles of Management?
Nkomo: Well yeah, because I didn’t have the Ph.D. So they gave you, like, the undergraduate – it was maybe a first-year class. So yeah, I could teach undergrads without the PH.D. So I was teaching four sections of Principles of Management to – probably they were sophomores and I liked it. I liked engaging with that level of student. And then also because the University of Rhode Island is more – it’s the top University of Rhode Island but most of the kids were from Rhode Island and may of them were working class. And so, for them, this was really important that they get their little B degree in business or their B degree in accounting. I loved my students and I could see that this was critical for them to go on and change their lives. So I said, “Here’s where I can make a difference.”
Scarpino: At the point that you were earning the MBA and then teaching, were you married at that point?
Nkomo: Yeah, I was married. I got married in 1975. I finished the MBA in 1976.
Scarpino: Because this is going to become relevant to your life story later on, you are an African American person...
Scarpino: You married a man from Africa…
Nkomo: That’s right. How did that happen? (laughing)
Scarpino: (Laughing) I was trying to think of a nice way to say it. I talked to David…
Nkomo: David Zoogha.
Scarpino: Yes, a really interesting man. He sort of gave me some lessons on, you know, that Africans and African American are not the same. I mean, I knew that, but different cultures, different expectations. They don’t look at the world the same way. So, how did you meet a man from Africa and decide to marry this man?
Nkomo: That’s very simple. Okay, it’s not simple. I told you, he left South Africa in exile and went to Penn State University. When I first got out of high school at 17, I worked for Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company. I did that for five years. I stayed there because I started going to school at night. I was going to school at night and then I said to my mother, “I’m so bored in the bank but I still need to work because I’m going to school at night.” I started looking for another position. And I saw an ad in the paper. They were looking for secretaries at the African-American Institute. The African-American Institute was an agency funded by the U.S. State Department. I didn’t know it at the time. They were right next to the United Nations. And what they did is they gave scholarships and managed higher education opportunities for students from Africa. They were right there on – wherever the U.N. – 52nd and -- right there by the river. And so I went for the interview and I got the job. And I remember my mother said, “Oh, are you sure you should switch from the bank? The bank is very reliable.” And I said, “Ma, I’m so bored.” So I went there and I got a job as a secretary supporting the guy who was the training manager. What they would do, they would support the students coming from Africa while they’re at university and when they finished university, they were allowed to do one year of practical training before they would go home. So my little department that I worked in, we would help these African students to get placed with corporations in Manhattan and New Jersey. So if you had a degree let’s say in chemistry, then we’d try to get you to Merck or someplace. So that’s what I did. I didn’t know much about Africa, but because I was there, I started hearing about different countries, understanding the program. And what was good about the African-American Institute, the president or the CEO at that time was E. Jefferson Murphy. He was a well-known African historian and he worked for the State Department and he was the head of the African-American Institute.
Scarpino: Just for the benefit of somebody who’s going to listen to this, when you say African-American Institute, you mean an American institute that deals with African students…
Scarpino: …not African American person.
Nkomo: Yes. That’s true.
Scarpino: Not people of color living in the United States.
Nkomo: Yeah, exactly. It was AAI. See, when I applied for the job, I thought that. I thought this was African American. But it was really a hyphen – like it was really African American relations. They probably should have had that in there. But the main thing they did was to support African students. It was part of the Cold War strategy of the U.S. that we don’t want these Africans to go to the communist countries, we want to bring them to the U.S. I mean, I understood that later once I got in the bigger political agenda. And the other thing, most of the people working there as program officers and decision-makers were people who had been doing a lot of work in Africa. Many of them had been in the Peace Corps or scholars. E. Jefferson Murphy was a top African historian, and so I was a secretary and I worked for this person. But E. Jefferson Murphy was a very wonderful leader and he said, “Well, if you’re working at the African-American Institute, you should start learning something about Africa.” So he would do these lunchtime sessions where he would teach us about Africa and I would go. And I started learning. The stuff he exposed us to, in terms of African history, was just amazing. He’s going back to the ancient kingdom. So I started learning about Africa. I started getting interested in African issues. The students – I had contact with these students. I got to know some of the ambassadors and consulate officers at the United Nations. And you begin to understand this big continent, whereas before I knew nothing about it. And then my husband – the way I met Mokubung was that he was one of these students. He had been brought on a scholarship. He went to Penn State University. He graduated with a degree in Economics. Now, one of the problems the organization had was they had all of these program officers dealing with these African students but they had no African program officers (laughing). They were mostly white guys, Peace Corps. And they began to have problems in some of the dynamics. So my husband was hired as an experiment. He didn’t know it at the time, but I knew it because I…so they said, “We should probably start hiring some Africans to be program officers.” And because he was from South Africa and he couldn’t go home, for some reason he was interviewed and he got the job. He got the job and so he was sitting in my area, so literally I would – my desk was here and his desk was there and that’s how we started talking. I didn’t know much about South Africa, so I started learning that from him. But he had a terrible job. His job was to answer letters from families in Africa who were looking for their son or husband or brother who had left Africa to come study in the U.S. but the guy never came back (laughing).
Scarpino: Never came back. No.
Nkomo: So he would get these letters. He would – so that’s how we met.
Scarpino: How long did you work at the African-American Institute?
Nkomo: Okay, 1969 – I only worked there – let’s see, 1969 – then I went to Bryant. Yeah, so I only worked there two years. So I left from there – that’s when I quit and I went to Rhode Island full time. I was a full time student at Rhode Island.
Scarpino: When you were an MBA student and then when you were teaching and so on, did you have children?
Nkomo: Well, no. Our son was born – that’s how I – okay, that’s another story (laughing) because that was more advice to me. We got married in 1975. Our son was born in 1977. We had dated a long time but, at URI, I taught that year. I taught one year. It would have been 1974. I loved it and I enjoyed it. So when it got close to thinking about next year, I said to the chair or somebody – what’s his name? – I can see him. But anyway, I said to him, “Can I get a contract for next year?” And he said, “No.” Just like that. I said, “But you didn’t even let me finish talking.” He said, “No, Stella. You cannot get a contract because you don’t have a Ph.D. I can only let you teach for a year as a fill-in. But if you really want to have an academic career, kiddo, you need to get a Ph.D.”
Scarpino: How did you end up at UMass Amherst? Because, I mean, you must have had choices.
Nkomo: So I looked around, and at that time I was interested in HR issues where I thought I could do some people stuff. And then my husband was working for the Teacher Corps. He was in education. And so we talked about it. He had an M degree and I had the M degree and we said, “Well, why don’t we both go and do our Ph.D.’s at the same time and get it over with?” I had just become pregnant. I said, “Well, let’s just do it.” So we applied to the same schools hoping that it would work out. We applied to Amherst, Cornell, Wisconsin. So it turned out that I got into Cornell, which was my first choice. My husband didn’t. I had put Wisconsin down as a third choice and he got into Wisconsin, but the place where we both got into was Amherst Mass. And Amherst Mass, we said, “Let’s go there.” Because with a child coming, there’s no way one should be in Cornell and somebody else is…
Scarpino: Oh, yeah.
Nkomo: So that’s how we ended up at UMass. So we both did our doctorates at the same time.
Scarpino: Relatively small community in western Massachusetts.
Nkomo: Amherst, yeah. It was a great community for graduate students. Lots of support, lots of progressive people. We started a Free South Africa Movement there, my husband and I. We did a lot of activism. We also, with some of the women there, we started a Third World Women’s Leadership Organization (laughing). At Bryant College, I was the head of the Black Student Union.
Scarpino: So you were pretty much of an activist as a student.
Nkomo: Yes, very much so.
Scarpino: The Third World Leadership Association…
Nkomo: The Third World Women’s Association.
Scarpino: What was generally that intended to do?
Nkomo: Amherst is a very white farming town and there were very few black people at Amherst. So first it was about community, like supporting each other because a lot of us were doctoral students, poor. No money as a doctoral student. We had children. But then what happened, a young lady – young undergraduate student from Sri Lanka – she was earning money by entertaining men and she ended up dead in a motel. And it seemed to us that the Amherst police were doing nothing, so we organized a political movement around her death and the lack of investigation by the police. And then from that, we started taking on other issues, for example, South Africa, the Palestinian issue. We would meet monthly and work on local issues and international issues.
Scarpino: You were an activist as an undergraduate. Now you’re in graduate school and at some point your child is born. You’re a doctoral student trying to do all the things that doctoral students have to do and you’re still an activist.
Nkomo: Yes. And I kept that very separate because the business school was very conservative.
Scarpino: Did they know what you were up to?
Nkomo: They really didn’t know. People would laugh because they said, “Does the business school know that you’re saying that corporations should get out of South Africa?” I said, “No, it has nothing to do with it.” No, it was very separate, but we supported African students. I remember at Amherst College, my husband and I rented this big old farm house and we used to rent out some rooms to the undergraduate students – the black students who were going to Amherst who were just miserable. So they could come to our house and stay there and we’d cook food for them and try to provide community for them. We always had students living with us. Some of them would be, “I’m Puerto Rican. I grew up in Spanish Harlem, I’m here in Amherst, I don’t know what a cow is. I can’t relate to this.” “Okay, come and stay with us.” So yeah, we really were involved with the community. It was a wonderful community, activists, women’s issues. We belonged to a food co-op. I used to can vegetables. We had a community garden. I told people – it was great. We used to grow tomatoes and fruit and work the land. We had a wood stove. I knew how to start a wood stove fire. It was a great time. It was great. But we did a lot of work around South Africa, of course, with my husband. We would bring in speakers and try to get the university to divest all of its investments in South Africa. We continued that work when we moved to Charlotte. We organized the Charlotteans for a Free South Africa. So we worked in Charlotte. We picketed Nations Bank.
Scarpino: While you were still at UMass Amherst, the business school faculty never figured out you were doing all this stuff?
Nkomo: No. Only my closest friends. The business school was the business school. I’m telling you, that was a very conservative environment. When I went for my Ph.D., Phil, I tell these young women – I see them now, they give me a good feeling. When I went, 14 of us came into that Ph.D. program. Five of us were women, two of us were married with young – my son couldn’t hardly walk then. There was another woman in the program, she also had a very young child. We were assigned as doctoral assistants to these professors who treated us like dirt, like donkeys. I had one that would call me at 2:00 in the morning, “I need you to be in my office by 6:00. I need you to do a run for me. I need you to do this.” So she and I – we were the only women there who had children. I said to her, “I don’t know about you but we’re only supposed to work 20 hours a week. This guy is making me work 30, sometimes 40 hours a week and I think we must go and complain to the director.” She said, “Really?” I said, “Let’s go together.” So we go into the director’s office, who was an ex-Marine. I had never been in his office. We got in his office and I knew it was a mistake as soon as I sat down because I looked up and he had a picture of himself in his Marine uniform. His name was Don Fredericks. And he had on his mantle a grenade.
Scarpino: Good Lord.
Nkomo: I know. And I’m looking at him, like I’m looking at you, and he says, “What can I do for you girls?” And so I said, “Well, we just want to see if you could talk to our professors to make sure that they kind of only keep that assignments to 20 hours a week. We both have very young children and it’s really hard to do our Ph.D., and to meet that, so we’re hoping that you, as the director, could talk to them.” Don looked at us in the eye and he said, “You knew you had children when you came here. Can I help you with anything else?”
Scarpino: (Laughing) That was his help.
Nkomo: So my friend said, “I think I’m going to drop out. I can’t do this.” And my answer was, “Okay. I’m going to get this Ph.D. (laughing).” And I never, ever mentioned Sebenza, I never mentioned my son, I never again complained. I just said, “Okay.” I said to my husband, “You know what? There’s no mercy there. I came here to get a Ph.D. I’m getting my Ph.D. I will manage with Sebenza.” So my husband and I just figured out how we would do it. I would get up at 3:00 in the morning – if this guy called me to do something, I’d just get up at 3:00 in the morning and walk to the building and do it. But I remember when I graduated five years ago and I came with Sebenza, a lot of people said, “You have a child? All this time you had this child?” I said, “Yes.”
Scarpino: (Laughing) Yes, I’m not renting.
Nkomo: (Laughing) I’m not renting! But that was how it was at that time. So it’s really nice to see now that many more programs are more conducive to female students. But only two of us women finished.
Scarpino: My students say -- we’re doing such and such, and they say, well I have a small child.” And I say, “Well, bring him.”
Nkomo: In those days, no! There was no – none of that.
Scarpino: So you were given advice in this rather conservative business school that didn’t know you had this life as an activist to pick safe topics. And we talked about your dissertation this morning. But if I read your record correctly, when you entered your academic career, you clearly didn’t follow that advice. In fact, the first refereed journal article that I can find that you published after you earned your Ph.D., was “Differential Performance Appraisal Criteria: A Field Study of Black and White Managers,” in Group and Organizational Studies in 1986 with Taylor J. Cox. I assume this is another case of you pushing against borders and saying, “You’re not going to hem me in.”
Nkomo: I said no. No I couldn’t because that’s what my interest was. I didn’t do it for my Ph.D. but -- and see what happens to you – you know the cycle. I had a couple of publications out as a Ph.D., which you have to do. I knew I needed to do that. But once you do that, you have to find a new research area. So I went immediately to the area that I was interested in and I wasn’t really – I wasn’t worried that – people say to me, “You never seemed to really worry about getting tenure.” That wasn’t the major thing on my mind. I’d always felt like, “Okay, I can get a job.” I don’t know why I had that attitude. So, yeah, I started doing exactly what I wanted to do as soon as I could.
Scarpino: Who was your coauthor?
Nkomo: Taylor Cox.
Nkomo: Oh, I love Taylor. Taylor is a black – he was – he graduated from Arizona State. I was so happy I found him because I found somebody else who was interested in race in organizations. So he said, “Let’s work together.” Because, you see, the advisor I had at UMass, he wasn’t a very good advisor and he really had no interest even my publications out of the Ph.D.
Scarpino: Taylor was on the faculty there?
Nkomo: Yeah. Taylor – well, I interviewed at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Taylor was at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte when I interviewed, but he left after I got there and he went to Johnson C. Smith University and then Duke University. So we were in the same state. And we said, “Let’s get together. Let’s do research.”
Scarpino: I read a piece that you sent to me entitled “Fining my Scholarly Voice: Making the Invisible Visible.” It’s in The Journal of Corporate Citizenship in June of 2016, so it’s relatively recent. And you talked about that research that you’d undertaken with Taylor Cox, research on the career paths of black MBA students. And you wrote in there, “The turning point for truly finding my scholarly voice remains poignant. I still remember it as if it happened yesterday.” And you got an anonymous – because it was all anonymous…
Nkomo: In a survey.
Scarpino: A lengthy, you know, pouring out of the heart about this woman who clearly was in a bind. How did that – and there was no way to know who it was because it was anonymous. But how did – say a little bit about what that letter said and then the impact it had on you.
Nkomo: Yeah, you see, even that first article, I wasn’t really doing qualitative work because I had been trained quantitatively. So I was clearly just following the methodologies that I had learned, which was a survey. So we put together this survey to kind of understand what happened to black MBAs. We did the survey and we sent it out. I was the person collecting the envelopes. They were coming to me. And when I saw that, I thought, “This is more than a survey.” But in her letter -- it was an African American woman -- she identified herself as an African American woman and that she was working for a big oil company. I think she named it, I can’t remember. I think it was Texaco, down in Houston, Texas – and that she was the only black woman and she was having a terrible time with racism. She shared stories. It must have been about five pages, that letter, because she had stories and whatnot. And at the end, the last part of the letter said, “Thank you for doing this survey and asking.” She said, “I’m having a very difficult time and I don’t know if I’ll be able to hang on.” And then I thought, “You know what? This kind of story needs to get out. My survey is not going to get this kind of stuff. And I need to even think about gender with race.” So that’s when my work started thinking – I wrote a little book chapter you wouldn’t have found called, “The Forgotten Case of the Black Woman Manager.”
Scarpino: Yeah, I didn’t find that article.
Nkomo: Yeah, you won’t find it. It was in a book. It’s very old. But…
Scarpino: I’m going to close this door.
Nkomo: Maybe you have to lock it. Yeah, so it was sort of like, “How can I help these women to have voice?” Because I couldn’t share her letter? It was a confidential letter. So it wasn’t something that we could report even in that article because it was a letter. You know what I mean? So then I thought, “I need a way to capture the lived experience and what is it like to be a black woman manager in a very white-dominant company?” And then, luckily, I hooked up with Ella Bell and that’s when we started thinking about the life stories with this book to really get that rich feeling, because I felt that the average dominant person, whether it’s a man or a white person, wouldn’t understand her pain. I mean, the letter was painful. You could tell this woman was really in deep pain, almost to the point of maybe even breaking down.
Scarpino: You gave her a chance, in effect.
Nkomo: She just felt so happy. She said, “I’m so glad that somebody is looking at this because I don’t think anybody knows what’s happening to us.” It was like a plea, you know? It was like, thank you for doing this research. And so, it said to me, “You’re doing the right thing.” It said, “You’re doing the right thing. Keep on doing this, even if other voices are telling you this is not the way to get your promotion.” And those voices were like that. But I said, “No. This person has spoken to me, somebody out in the real world saying, ‘This is important.’ So this needs to make a difference.”
Scarpino: You got your doctoral degree and you accepted employment as an assistant professor at Belk College of Business Administration, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. We talked a little bit about that at the beginning, and you stayed there for 17 years. I can’t resist doing this. I mean, recently within the past several weeks, there was an incident in Charlotte related to white supremists…
Scarpino: Charlottesville, yes. You are aware of that?
Scarpino: Basically, with your life experience and everything you know about leadership, what did you think when you…
Nkomo: It breaks my heart.
Nkomo: I thought we were further along than we were. I’m not surprised by it, but I thought that, again, if leaders don’t speak out – it was an absence of leadership from the highest level…
Scarpino: That’s where I was kind of going. It was a leadership issue.
Nkomo: Yeah, it’s a leadership issue. I’m angry about it. I’m angry about it and the fact that somebody died and that our president is not a voice for tolerance, for equality and to think of all the people before him that tried to put this in place. So it’s a sad moment for me because I was hoping – I mean, I make it very personal. You think of your grandchild – a beautiful young black child. And I was hoping that, “Oh, okay. We’re past that now. We’re on a progressive path.” And then you see Charlottesville. So, yeah, it was gut-wrenching, but the lack of leadership from the highest voice in the land is appalling and it’s frightening. Because basically what he said is that white nationalism is fine. That’s how I read it. It’s fine. Those people have a right to do that. He showed no empathy for the young lady who died – innocent young woman trying to do good, if you read her story – a true human being.
Scarpino: She was run down by a car – a guy in a car.
Nkomo: Yeah. To me it’s like a blow to the progress the country was making. I think there was progress. I really do. I think that if we could have continued, not necessarily with a black president – it didn’t have to be a black president, but a president who kept trying to bring people together, we could be further along. Now, I think the current president is taking us back and allowing people with these kinds of views to feel empowered. I think he empowered those people instead of saying, “This is wrong. We can’t have this in this country.”
Scarpino: I need to be respectful of the time. We did talk about your article, “The Emperor has no Clothes,” and if I have time, I’m going to come back to that. In 2000, you made the choice to move to South Africa. And I’m afraid that most of the people who listen to this will know almost nothing about South Africa.
Scarpino: So I’m going to do something, and it’s not for your benefit, but I’m just going to put a few dates in here.
Nkomo: That’s fine.
Scarpino: In 1934, South Africa becomes a sovereign nation with the removal of the last vestiges of the British legal authority. In 1948, the policy of apartheid was adopted by the National Party. In 1950, population was classified by race and we get the Group Areas Act. The African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela responds with a campaign of civil disobedience. In 1964, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and spends 27 years in prison. The rising level of protest and violence that all Americans should know about. In the early 1990s, South Africa moves toward a peaceful end to apartheid. In 1994, African National Congress wins the nonracial elections and Nelson Mandela becomes president. And so we usually date the restoration of democracy to 1994, is that correct?
Nkomo: 1994. April 27, 1994.
Scarpino: When you look at the situation in South Africa, what impact did colonialization followed by de-colonialization have on the structure and racial composition of leadership?
Nkomo: Well, it has changed because, remember, under apartheid, blacks couldn’t even be managers. Of course blacks could never lead a white person. So their roles were as laborers. They were confined to the lowest jobs so there was clearly a race and gender hierarchy, so black women at the lowest rung. They could either be unemployed or, if they did work, they could be domestics, right? Then black men, laborers in the mines. You’ve seen it. The very lowest jobs, the dirtiest jobs, the dangerous jobs. Then white women could work, but they would have to work in stereotypical women’s jobs, like nurses, female-related things, cashiers, secretaries. Black women couldn’t even be secretaries and cashiers. And then, of course, white men at the top and so management, leadership was the purview of white men under the National Party that would have been Africanas. So everything looked like that. So when I got to the universities, even in the black areas, the university academics were whites. In 1994, now you have a shifted political power. So clearly the government changed rather quickly, but in the private sector and universities, that has been slower. The Employment Equity Act was passed in 1998, four years later. That was a new word I heard when I got to South Africa. They call it transformation -- not affirmative action but transformation. We need to transform the structures. So this is where you begin to get interventions to change the composition of leadership.
Scarpino: And you were involved with that, right?
Nkomo: I was involved in some of that. I did some research on it too and have done workshops with people. So, for example, wherever the government had the most power, which is in the state-owned enterprises, they literally would just say, “Philip, you are no longer the CEO, out,” and they would put a black person in. So one of the things I did is I interviewed a lot of the organizations when they were going through this transition. Remember, I got there in 2000 and so I started doing some of this research in 2001 and 2002. For example, I mentioned Transnet. Transnet is the big railroad company, the freight company and all of that. They had put in Saki Macozoma, who had been on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. He became the first black CEO of Transnet. So I wanted to understand, “How did this happen?” So again, my approach was qualitative. So I did this big study of Transnet. I did Transnet first and then I did Telecom which is a company. But I talked to Saki Macozoma, “What was it like for you to be the first black CEO?” I talked to the whole black executive team, which were all these people just flown in and just said, “Now you’re in charge.” And then I spoke to the white people who had to leave. So I spoke to a Mr. Mullman (Spelling??) and he even said, “I will be known as the last white CEO of Transnet.” I spoke to the union guys. I spoke to those first train drivers. I was trying to understand…
Scarpino: The female train drivers.
Nkomo: The female train drivers, yeah. So I wrote that, you know, trying to understand the transformation. I also got involved with – luckily I was involved with the Office on the Status of Women with Thabo Mbeki. Thabo Mbeki established the Office on the Status of Women, which was to do gender mainstreaming.
Scarpino: Followed Nelson Mandela?
Nkomo: He was the president after Nelson Mandela. They signed on to the Beijing Conference for, you know, the Beijing platform that countries would approach gender equality. South Africa was a signer. So when I got there and my area was in gender, I was invited by the people in his office who were working on the project to join the team. I was involved in helping to create what they called a gender mainstreaming approach, which first was a policy document. Then it was going to be implemented in government departments. So teaching government departments, “How do you take out gender discrimination or you mainstream gender?” So it had a training component. We would train people and try to get the government to be the first institution to transform gender. Then I did a lot of workshops with Lize Booysen and we would do diversity workshops with companies.
Scarpino: She talked to me about that. I’ve Skyped with her, so I know that she is white (laughing).
Scarpino: Otherwise I wouldn’t know that, but she told me and there was a reason she told me. She told me about dealing with the challenges associated with white males losing power in South African companies. She schooled me a little on the Employment Equity Act that we’ve already talked about. She added that it was important, because she was a white person, to be working with you to have a biracial team. But one of the things that really struck me -- and I wrote it down and asked her to say it again to make sure I got it right -- she talked about the two of you as trying to normalize an abnormal society. Do you agree with that, that you were endeavoring to normalize an abnormal society?
Nkomo: I think that was true because, I’ll tell you, to get into those – you see, I remember the first session I went with Lize. So you bring together people, blacks and whites in the room, and you’re trying to use some facilitation to get them to go beyond where they’ve been. And I remember we would do this lifeline exercise. We had all these exercises. So one was, “Draw a line that represents your time, your life. When did you first encounter or get an understanding of your race and what that meant?” So people would do this and then we’d facilitate it. And, of course, for the whites, the way they would talk about it was very different from the way that blacks would talk about it. But I’ll never forget this one black woman – and this was in a company. So, she’s talking about it and she gets to the point where she has to relate a story about Soweto uprising when the school children were shot. Then all of a sudden, without any warning, she turns to one of her white male colleagues and said, “You did not say in your timeline that you were a soldier in the apartheid government! You were there that day! I saw you! And all this time I’ve been working with you and I know it’s you. You were there. You shot school children.”
Scarpino: Was she right?
Nkomo: She was right. So I said to Lize, “This is a little bit too close for me because the people who lived under apartheid were still there.” It’s not like if you now talked to people in Nazi Germany. You have people 90, 100 years old. But this was so fresh that – and then I realized, even among my own colleagues, any white male that I met that was about 40, 50, was in – because they had conscription, like the chair of my department.
Scarpino: They were all drafted.
Nkomo: Yeah, they were drafted unless they ran away. The chair of my department. I’m looking now, thinking, “Okay, you patrolled the townships. Did you kill people? Did you torture people?” So that’s what she said – the abnormals. And now these people have to work together. Do you just forgive and forget? What do you do with that?
Scarpino: What do you do?
Nkomo: I don’t – I mean, we kind of processed it but then I understood the magnitude of the work. That’s what I said to Lize, “I don’t think these little diversity techniques or these companies that want you to come in for a couple of hours to do something, this has got to be more long-term work because you need to take the black people off and the white people off and you really need to sit and say, okay. So part of it was, in the sense that you needed to do much more healing work – healing work because there was a lot of anger.
Scarpino: Is that part of leadership?
Nkomo: Yes, it is. But see, sometimes, Phil, the reality is companies don’t want that. They don’t want that deep intervention, you know? That’s what kind of got me worried – that you would say to the companies, “This is not somebody coming in for a day, dear. There’s a lot of pain here. There’s a lot of anger. There are still black people who believe that whites didn’t get the punishment they should have gotten. There are still whites who still believe, ‘How did these people get in power?’”
Scarpino: You talked this morning when you mentioned Rwanda that people will do things that you can’t imagine people doing, and your department chair was a soldier in the South African white army suppressing people in Soweto.
Nkomo: Yeah. But see, how do you then help the black people to understand that? They have to understand the choices that person would have faced if he or she had decided to rebel against it, and some whites did. See, I would say to them, “Okay, he didn’t, but there were other whites who did have the courage to say, ‘No, I will not go. I will join the ANC. I will fight apartheid.’” It’s the same with Nazi Germany. But that takes work and a lot of dialogue to get people to forgive. They require forgiveness. I mean, it’s one thing for Bishop Tutu to do it, but it’s another thing for that every-day person who now has to sit and work with this person and knowing that a couple of years ago this person had a rifle and a gun and was doing damage in my township. So I don’t know. I think some of that is still below the surface. I don’t think that enough time was spent on it generally. That would be one of the feedbacks I would say to the government. I think that there needed to be much more time for people to make that transition. It’s sort of like, okay, 1994, now everybody get along together.
Scarpino: It can’t possibly work that way.
Nkomo: No, it can’t. I think people have done remarkably well, though. It’s interesting. What it tells me though, Phil, is that people can – I mean it’s remarkably for the most part, if you went to South Africa, you would see people and in the work environment, you see people, so on the surface people kind of are tolerant. The deep work is another issue, but people have more capacity to adapt than they think they do. I think they could get help and process it. That’s why I’m saying I think in the U.S., that’s what I said, in the U.S., as terrible as those white nationalists looked, I do think they can be redeemed. I do think they could change their minds, but it has to be deliberate intervention and support to change your mind.
Scarpino: So, I talked to Jenny Hoobler.
Nkomo: Oh, yes, Jenny.
Scarpino: Pofessor and Deputy Dean for Research in Postgraduate Studies at the University of Pretoria. Very interesting talk we had. One of the things she told me is that you’ve devoted a great deal of – I’ll use the legal term, pro bono time to facilitating faculty development throughout Africa.
Scarpino: Workshops, encouraging faculty without Ph.D.’s to get them, raise the level of scholarship in teaching. Could you talk a little bit about that? I mean, what are you trying to accomplish? Why is it worth – we all have so much time and you’ve elected to spend some of your time doing that so…
Nkomo: Hey! It’s important! It’s important!
Scarpino: Tell me why it’s important.
Nkomo: Okay, it’s important because Africa – you know, Africa means much more than me just living there. I’m an African. My ancestors were brought here to the U.S. – not here, we’re in Brussels – but brought to the U.S. So that’s very clear to me. But, Africa has high potential but not enough capacity to do what it needs to do. That’s why I got involved with the Africa Academy of Management, how can such a big part of the world be left out of knowledge creation, especially knowledge creation and practices that would enable Africa to rise to its potential.
Scarpino: David Zoogah, when I talked to him, he talked to me about the creation of the African Academy of Management. He also told me that at the meeting, which must have been a decisive meeting and they elected a president, you weren’t there and they elected you (laughing).
Nkomo: That’s right.
Scarpino: And that he, then, was nominated to go tell you.
Nkomo: And did he tell you I didn’t want to do it?
Scarpino: Yes, he did.
Nkomo: “I’m not the right person,” I said to him.
Scarpino: He said there was some arm twisting and wheedling involved in getting you to say yes.
Nkomo: Well, I said to him, “I live in Africa, I love Africa but I think this should be led by an African, somebody on the continent.” And he said, “But, Stella, we think because of your stature, you can help.” And that’s what hooked me in, that I could use my knowledge and my experience. I already had tenure. I was a professor. I had some resources and that’s what they needed from me.
Scarpino: Agreeing to be president of the African Academy of Management, that’s as much an act of activism as it is scholarship.
Nkomo: Oh, yes, it is. It is. I advocate for Africa. By the way, it’s not African, we say, “Africa Academy of Management.”
Scarpino: Okay. I’m sorry.
Nkomo: Not to use the African. So, anyway, the pro bono – and so our mission is enabling or building capacity for Africa to manage better, okay? Because we’re management scholars. And one of the realities is, Africa has a very young population. It’s one of the youngest continents in terms of the population demographics. The universities there are bulging with students but not enough academics. So, for example, in the U.S., where it’s very standard, let’s say, 95% or 99% of your faculty will have a Ph.D.
Scarpino: At least, yeah.
Nkomo: In Africa, you will find people who just got a B degree teaching B students because they don’t have enough people. So we decided that a lot of us who started the organization, like, David Zoogah, he’s an African but he got to go to school in the U.S. He has a Ph.D. One of the things we could do is give back. So what we did in addition to having conferences, I said, “We need to develop other and grow Africans with Ph.D.’s.” So, pro bono, we organized by bootstrapping, by – I’ve used personal funds. I have…
Scarpino: She told me that. I didn’t know if I should bring it up or not. She said you used your own money to do this.
Nkomo: I call it bootlegging. Bootlegging, cajoling publishers, my own research funds out of my own pocket, but it’s been so leveraging. “Jim Walsh, would you please – could you come if I get money for your air fare? I can’t give you any stipend but you won’t be out of pocket. Could you come to these weeks?” So we do these week-long workshops and, I tell you, the first one we did or the second one we did, the students are so grateful because many of them can’t even find supervisors. They don’t have access to materials. The libraries there are under-resourced. So it’s bringing them into the scholarly conversation. It’s making sure they get a Ph.D. because if they get a Ph.D., then guess what? They’re going to help ten other people.
Scarpino: They’ll turn around and hold the door open, too.
Nkomo: They’ll hold the door open and, again, we ask them to do that. But it’s so gratifying, not that you want people to be bending over thanking you, but when we did the workshop in Rwanda and the last day – we didn’t know this but the people in the workshop – we do about 15 to 20 at a time. They got together and they said they were going to sing us a song. So the song they sang was “Amazing Grace.”
Scarpino: Oh my goodness.
Nkomo: They changed the words a little bit to say, “Before you came, we were blind. We knew no idea about a Ph.D. or what we should do and now our eyes have been opened and we want to be scholars.” And many of them have gotten their Ph.D.’s and they go right back to their universities and now they’re going to help others.
Scarpino: When you went into Rwanda – I mean, you talk about the situation in South Africa where the white person several years ago was holding a rifle, but you’ve got people there where one group massacred the other. Did you have both Tutsi and Hutu in the groups?
Nkomo: Oh yeah, but this was after the massacre. Yeah, but, I tell you, the leader there has done a good job. He’s just – you don’t – like I told you, they told us, “Do not mention the words race or ethnicity.” You can’t even ask people, “Are you Hutu or Tutsi?” You’re not supposed to ask. They took it out of the identity book. They took it out of the identity book. We were told when we came in, “Don’t be bringing up people’s ethnic – don’t ask them.” So I think there that’s an example of – I mean, he’s got problems, Kagame. Some people have problems with him but, I must say from what I saw, it’ll be interesting to watch if that’s sustainable, if in fact he’s able to bridge that horrific memory. Their museums are very powerful. In fact, I had said to – Jim Walsh was there with us and I said to Jim, “I wonder if we shouldn’t think about bringing these leaders who speak about ethnic divisions and try to rile up, bring them and show them because there, Phil – I never got to go to Nuremburg or some of the Nazi sites. So this is the closest I’ve ever seen it. But to see – to be in those places where thousands of people were killed, it does something to you. I mean, to go into a church, and the way the Rwandans have done it, it’s in your face. So the church scene, where it’s the wooden church, it’s a real African church with the wooden benches where I think 5,000 people were killed, they took the clothes from the people from their bodies and in each little spot, they have a pile of clothes. So sometimes you see a woman’s clothes, you see children’s clothes or you see shoes to represent that these were real people sitting here and praying, you know? And they were killed.
Scarpino: It’s like those piles of shoes at the Holocaust Museum.
Nkomo: Exactly, which I had not seen. I mean, doesn’t that – in the Apartheid Museum, people cry when they get there where they have this one room where they have a noose for everybody who was…
Scarpino: I cried when I saw those shoes. It was…
Nkomo: Yes, exactly. Because you can imagine your humanity – your humanity is just tapped because you sit there and say, “It could be me. It could be me.” I just thought…
Scarpino: I mean, isn’t that sort of the first step on getting people to identify and understand, to look in the mirror and say, “That could be me?”
Nkomo: I agree. And that’s what I was saying, I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to take some of these leaders who are talking war and threatening -- do you know what a war does to people?” To talk casually about war is just – it’s a sin. It’s just irresponsible.
Scarpino: Given all the problems that still exist in South Africa and certainly problems that exist in Africa, what keeps you going?
Nkomo: Oh, you know what? I don’t have it on. Possibility. I do believe that things can change. And each person – it’s never like one big thing that changes things; it’s a lot of people doing things, I think. So I can see the little bit that I’m doing has made a difference. If I’m able to encourage some young African scholar or help him or her finish their Ph.D., that means he or she – it’s almost bankable. It will earn interest because then they will be able, hopefully, to teach their students better or advise their government better or implement something.
Scarpino: What do you find to be most frustrating when trying to operationalize that point of view?
Nkomo: I think a lot of people give up too soon. I think a lot of people want a big bang or they want things quickly. When you get 70 years old, you realize that things take a while. I just believe that it’s better if you remember: I may not see it in my lifetime but I do know that one day Africa will become all that she can become. I may not see it, though, but that will happen.
Scarpino: Sort of what Martin Luther King imagined, wasn’t it?
Nkomo: I think you have to keep going. You want a better life, a better world. You just have to know that you may not be there to see if. But every time my students cross the graduation stage, I know, “Okay, getting closer.” So a possibility. You’re making a difference in one or two lives, but that’s a lot.
Scarpino: Shortly after you got to South Africa, your 2001 volume came out, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity.
Nkomo: I finished it there, yeah.
Scarpino: So you were out of the country when it came out?
Nkomo: Yeah, we had already done the manuscript. It was just Harvard getting it together and getting it published.
Scarpino: Were you surprised by the impact that that book had?
Nkomo: Well, we knew it was breakthrough because it was the first book to do that. Yeah, so we – you know what it is actually? What amazes me about it is how many people have read it who you encounter, like, here, Elaine, I forget her surname – Elaine, anyway. She’s on the board, I think.
Scarpino: Yeah. Yeah.
Nkomo: She came to me and said, “Oh, you don’t know this but I need to tell you. I was working somewhere and I was having a very difficult time as a young black manager and then I heard about your book and I read your book and that book helped me to get through that job.” I said, “Really?” So we hear that, and that’s more of the surprise of the book. And also in South Africa when people heard I wrote the book, some people in South Africa bought it, even white women. And they said, “I know this was women in the U.S. but, Stella, I saw my story in there. I was this person. That’s how my story was.” So people could connect to the stories that were in the book and it kind of reflected their own experiences. One woman said, “It told me I wasn’t crazy. Your book confirmed that I wasn’t crazy. At one point, I thought I was crazy; I thought there was something wrong with me. But after reading your book, I realized, no, other people have a similar experience.”
Scarpino: Your coauthor on that book, Ella, she also, I think, founded…
Scarpino: And you have served as a Project Research Leader for ASCENT. So what does ASCENT do and what does the Project Research Leader do?
Nkomo: Okay, so what happened with Ella and I, I was going to South Africa. It was really difficult for us, but based on what we found in the research of the book, we thought, “You know what? We need to do an intervention. It’s not just enough to write the book, we need to do a women’s development program. What can we do to help the women with these challenges?” So Ella started working on it. She was mostly in the U.S. I helped as much as I could. Then we came up with this idea of ASCENT, leading multicultural women to the top. So it was to help women to break through the glass ceiling, especially focusing on black women.
Scarpino: In the United States?
Nkomo: The work was done in the United States. Ella was at Dartmouth Tuck Business School so she talked to them and they said, “Yes, you can run the program out of here.” And so we worked on a proposal. I worked on the research part. We found other people helping with the curriculum, went around to companies to get the sponsors and then finally she got enough money. I also teaching the program, it’s on hiatus now because she is changing the branding of it. But I would go every year, fly in from South Africa. I would do the session on visionary strategic thinking. And I also collect the research and the evaluations in terms of what impact did the program have on you? And also tracking the women’s progress. So I’ve kept my foot in it, although Ella has really picked up the leadership role because I’m not there most of the time.
Scarpino: I don’t know if this is a fair question to ask, but I’m going to be gutsy enough to do it. Do you think it’s made a difference?
Nkomo: Oh, yeah, definitely. Yes. Again, it’s by feedback from the women, promotions, but you see it in the program because we spent a lot of time with the women – just their own clarity around, “You know what? I’m not a victim. I can do this.” Or becoming comfortable with their own identity. So when I do the research, some of it is survey-like but some of it is, like, what was the biggest impact for you in this program? So this is how I noticed it. The other thing is it enables them to build a network, a community. A lot of the women still get together once a month. They’ve been out of the program. In the program, we set up coaching pods and try to teach them you’re not alone. So if you’re having a situation at work that might be related to work, maybe because of your gender or your race, call somebody and process it with them. So they are supporting each other like crazy and that gives me a lot of hope that they have a network. And the other thing is some of them have gotten out of boxes, you know? I’ll just tell you a quick story. We had one young lady from Alabama, I won’t mention her name. She is working for a big company. She’s very U.S. bound and the company said, “You’re very bright, but for you to go to the next level, you need to have international experience.” “No, I need to stay in the U.S. I’m not prepared to go for an international experience. I’m happy where I am.” And when she shared that in the workshop, we said, “No. That door opened. You need to go through it.” She went through the door. Her whole life has changed. She’s moved quicker. She ended up marrying somebody internationally. She is a very happy person. Her horizons are broadened. So part of what the program does is pushing people. We also try to push women to be a voice for gender equality and racial equality. That’s why we say multicultural women. I don’t know if you heard it when I talked about that. Because the companies would say, “Oh, you just want black women.” We said, “No, we don’t just want African American women. We want all of your women, black, white, Latino, whatever, who you see as potential for moving up.” We want them to be together because we believe that women need community and by beginning to understand the differences among us, we can have bigger impact. So we love it when the women are so interested in learning about each other’s cultures, their histories and sharing. That’s another way to change the world. So they’re not going to just stay around the people who look like them, but in the program they from relationships with women who are different from them, which is a leadership skill – to know how to interact with people who are different from you.
Scarpino: I’m going to basically ask you some summary questions and then we’ll wrap this up.
Nkomo: Okay. I know.
Scarpino: I was going to ask you today – that you are retired. It turns out that you’re not really retired.
Nkomo: No. My husband’s ready to shoot me.
Scarpino: Here’s the first question I want to ask you. If you could get your hands on a time machine and could go back to the South Bronx and talk to the 15-year-old Stella Brown, what would you tell her?
Nkomo: Oh, boy. I would tell her, “Keep on doing what you’re doing. You’re going to really make a difference.” That’s what I would say.
Scarpino: You’ve been involved in leadership, leadership studies, leadership practices, leadership activism for a long time. What do you think are the major changes that have taken place in leadership studies in the last several decades? The big changes. Is it different from what it was 30 or 40 years ago?
Nkomo: It is different. I think the big change is more investment in leadership development. I mean, leadership development is a pretty new phenomenon. A lot of that at the time there wasn’t any specific intervention and training people to be leaders. So I think one of the big shifts is leadership development. And even if you look at the literature, if you do the literature search, it even tells you that. The number of articles on leadership development have really only grown probably since 2000, like David Day and people like that. Before that, it was all about theory. So that’s a big development. I think the other big development is, in addition to your kind of cookbooks – I call them cookbooks – as we’re speaking, probably five or six leadership books are being published right now, but serious academic journals devoted to leadership. So the Leadership Quarterly, which is a very serious, A-rated journal. The other journal, Leadership for Critical. So it has now been recognized more as an academic discipline. That’s good. I think the other development is – which I’m not sure if it’s the right one, I understand the intent -- is that people are interested in developing leadership earlier. At many universities, they have these leadership centers for undergrads. So some of those are kind of the big trends; trying to intervene in leadership at an earlier age more deliberately. I think the other big thing is the assessment part of it. One of the early precursors of leadership development was Richardson, the founder of Vicks Vapor Rub. Because I did work with the Center for Creative Leadership, I was on their board. And he was a big company owner, Vicks Vapor Rub which we all use and the cough drops. He started the Center for Creative Leadership.
Scarpino: I didn’t know that.
Nkomo: Yes. I didn’t know it either until somehow – because I was in North Carolina, I heard about this leadership place. He started this in the 1970s, late 1970s, and he had been a corporate leader, CEO, and he said, “We need to develop leaders. We need creative leaders.” He had a little foresight. So he funded – the Richardson Foundation still funds a lot of the Center for Creative Leadership. They run the board. I was on the board, the sons, and he said, “Let’s develop leaders.” So for the Center for Creative Leadership, he bought the land there in Greensboro. It’s a beautiful facility. They bring in people. They train them. So, yeah, I think those would be the big trends.
Scarpino: What do you think remains to be done? Big picture.
Nkomo: I think maybe more of developing the ethical aspect of leadership development because that’s probably where our biggest problem is. Dealing with issues of corruption and ethical leadership and tying that more to a broader view of company behavior; why are you a company? Now we focus on the leader and the person and assume that that will overflow into how they lead the company. I think we have to talk about what types of organizations do we need to create that are more equitable, that are positive forces in society? It probably needs to be a bigger conversation than just still focusing on the individual. You see, we kind of do that, we kind of focus on the individual and if we get the individual right, then he or she will shape the company the right way. But you know, you hear a lot of people who are very ethical, social justice-minded. If they get into a corporate setting, it’s very hard for them to sustain that, right?
Nkomo: It’s very hard to sustain that if that’s – you can’t. So we need to probably have conversations about helping people to think differently about organizations and their role in society. So I do like some of the conversation. I don’t like the labeling because it’s kind of like people think it’s charity; the social responsibility of companies. But you know what I mean? I think we need to go more of the organizational level. How do we begin to think differently about organizations? Because my students always ask that question. “Prof, you’re teaching us really good stuff, but when I get to my company and they say, ‘Do this,’ can I lead differently from that?”
Scarpino: So, I’m going to – because we’re being paged here – I didn’t realize that the room was going to be in use. I normally would ask you if there is anything that I didn’t give you a chance to say and, unfortunately, I’m going to have to not do that because we need to surrender the room.
Nkomo: And I think I’ve said enough. Thank you, Phil.
Scarpino: I want to thank you, while this is still on, on behalf of myself and the International Leadership Association and the Tobias Center for sharing so much of your time with me. It’s just been a pleasure to meet you and talk to you.
Nkomo: Thank you, and thank you for reading about me.