Lessons of Leadership from Rep. John Lewis

Since 2009, the University of St. Thomas has been a proud University partner of the National Black MBA – Twin Cities chapter Leaders of Tomorrow (LOT) program. UST supports the NBMBAA mission of creating educational opportunities for African Americans. Bill Woodson, Assistant Dean for MBA Programs, is a lifetime member of NBMBAA and has been an LOT mentor since 2005. Woodson recently traveled to the LOT Annual Conference and has been sharing his thoughts about the experience.

“Speak up, speak out. Get in the way!”

- Congressman John Lewis

IMG_0101Arrested 40 times for non-violently advocating for Black Americans to have the right to vote and use public facilities, Congressman Lewis captivated our young leaders with stories of meeting and being mentored by Martin Luther King as a college student. At the time just 23 years of age, Mr. Lewis was the youngest person to share Dr. King’s podium and address the 200,000 person crowd in the 1963 March on Washington. Now 74, Congressman Lewis encouraged the young audience not to wait – through sacrifice and service they are able to make a difference right now.

Lewis in particular clearly sought to spark these high school students’ pride in their African-American heritage. He spoke with conviction and emotion about the obstacles he overcame and the impact that he and other freedom fighters were able to have, creating opportunities that our young leaders are now positioned to take advantage of. He also reminded the audience that the original thirteen freedom riders included 7 whites as well as 6 blacks, that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, and that “while our ancestors have come to this country on different ships, we are all in the same boat now.”

It was as powerful an experience for us as mentors and chaperones as it was for the students. What’s more, the lessons of leadership felt incredibly relevant, not just for African American high school students aspiring to be future business leaders, but for leaders and future leaders of every race and background.

Lewis’ testimony was also a great reminder of the importance of passion. I couldn’t have said it any better than the call and response phrase adopted for the final day of the conference:

“Leaders are…?"


Woodson says this was his first experience as an LOT Conference chaperone but definitely not the last.