The Gumbo Coalition

Have you ever eaten gumbo? Gumbo is the most famous and popular dish in Louisiana. The most familiar gumbos are made with seafood, chicken, and/or sausage and might also include okra. The foundation of gumbo is roux, which is a mixture of fat and flour that holds the soup together. When times were difficult in Louisiana, people threw into the pot whatever they had for a gumbo meal. Just as it takes different kinds of foods and spices to make a good gumbo, so positive change takes place in our world when various constituencies work together.

Marc Morial grew up in the South during segregation and watched his father, Ernest Nathan (Dutch) Morial, become the first African American mayor of New Orleans in 1977. Marc learned from his father and others that progress is possible if different groups can come together into a melting pot that includes African Americans, Whites, Latinos, and Asians. The melting pot also consists of blue-collar workers, business leaders, clergy, grassroots community activists, and ordinary citizens who work alongside one another to reduce crime, provide meaningful jobs, and learn how together to make New Orleans a city of opportunity for all.

When Marc ran for mayor of New Orleans at age 36 in late 1993 and early 1994, he decided to call his election effort “The Gumbo Coalition.” By including an incredible mixture of all of New Orleans’s “ingredients,” Morial created a gumbo that was able to produce meaningful change and rebuild the reputation of New Orleans with such purpose that the city was able to secure an NBA franchise, multiple Super Bowls, and the Essence Festival, the largest African American event in the nation. Marc Morial served as the major of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002, was the President of the US Conference of Mayors in 2001, and has been the president of the civil rights organization, the National Urban League, since 2003.

In 2020, Morial published a book called The Gumbo Coalition; 10 Leadership Lessons that Help You Inspire, Unite, and Achieve. The Gumbo Coalition can be summarized by one sentence: Great leaders are able to unite various constituencies in service to a common cause. In other words, gumbo is not only a way of doing business, it’s a way of being in the world. I cannot imagine a more important challenge for people of faith in this time in which we are living.

When Morial became mayor, New Orleans had the highest murder rate in the country. During the next eight years, he was able to address the city’s out-of-control crime rate, police corruption, integration of schools, the rebuilding of safe neighborhoods, and transparency of leadership.

Marc Morial shares ten leadership principles that form the heart of The Gumbo Coalition. These principles are applicable to many different organizations, including the church.

Section One: The Kid Who Would be Mayor

  1. Speed Means Nothing Without Direction; A Leader Must Get off to a Fast Start with a Solid Plan
  • Have a plan and make sure that your plan matches your vision.
  • Align people and resources necessary for execution and overcommunicate your plan clearly and repetitively and to everyone involved.
  1. A Wise Person Changes, a Fool Never; A Leader Recognizes when to Modify the Plan
  • If the plan needs to be tweaked, evaluate if the change will benefit or harm your overall objectives and communicate the change as needed.
  1. With One Canoe, We Can Avoid the Waterfall; A Leader Understands the Value of Building Consensus
  • Communicate one-on-one to allow people to be heard and know where everyone’s “itch” is. Adopt a win-win approach.

Section Two: Senator, I Call Them People

  1. They’re Not Refugees, Dammit; A Leader Shows Strength Through Compassion
  • When Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005 and 16,000 homeless people flooded the Superdome in New Orleans, community leaders were criticized for showing a lack of empathy and ignoring the horror. They were essentially missing in action.
  • A good leader is able to channel pain into a constructive response. Do the right thing, even if it is not popular.
  1. Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em; A Leader is Skilled at Decision-Making Under Pressure
  • Consult with your most trusted people to make wise decisions collaboratively and have the courage to know when it’s necessary to change course.
  1. Get Ready for the Big Payback; A Leader is Not Paralyzed by the Unexpected
  • Recognizing and responding quickly and wisely to surprise through best practices helps gain buy-in.

Section Three: The Ditch

  1. Ants versus Crabs; A Leader Knows When to Lead and When to Follow
  • Crabs in a barrel survive by crawling over others to the top. Pulling other people down into a ditch in order to elevate yourself does not create coalitions that effect change.
  • When there is a clash of cultures, cross the ditch. Work in harmony with others like ants do.
  1. Working the Room; A Leader Builds Networks with Intention
  • Networking is about finding purpose in every situation by listening to the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of others.

Section Four: A Knock on the Door

  1. Persistence is Always a Winning Formula; A Leader Fights Through Disappointments to Achieve Victory
  • Learning from our own mistakes is a continual process. Rather than wallow in failure, get back up and keep moving forward.
  1. Innovation requires Seeing New Paths; A Leader Must Seek New Ways to Solve Old Problems
  • Creating systems to grow and improve consensus-building stimulates life-long learning and enhances collective buy-in.

What is the key to a good gumbo? Why, it’s the roux, the mixture of fat and flour that holds the soup together. That means good planning; listening, learning, and modifying; connecting, consulting, and collaborating; learning from mistakes; and seeing new paths. By promoting consensus building and creating community strength in service to a common cause, we, too, can form Gumbo Coalitions that transcend all barriers and transform our world in the name of Jesus Christ.


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