In the League of Leaders: A Conversation with NUL President and CEO Marc Morial


In the League of Leaders (ILL) is a new column that will feature prominent members of society who are displaying outstanding leadership skills in the community and their professional careers. For our inaugural post, we sat down with Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League.

Interview conducted at National Urban League Headquarters by Jasmine Humphrey, Camille Cheeks-Lomax and Dante Clemons.

What was your schedule like today?

This has been an unusual stretch for me the last couple of days because I haven’t had as much of an intense travel schedule. It’s a luxury to be able to spend 3 days straight in the office. So on a morning like this morning, I had scheduled calls between 8:30am and 10am. We had a Board Committee meeting at 10:30am then a staff meeting at 11am. We wrapped a video shoot for the Los Angeles Urban league, and then I had a scheduled call with Senator Landrieu. Following that, I had three other scheduled calls and about 4 internal meetings. That doesn’t account for the unscheduled calls or impromptu meetings. In between those, I try to keep up with emails and schedule time to meet with my media team.

When I’m here in the office I stay until 7pm or 7:30pm, to beat the traffic. On some nights I’ll attend an event or activity. I don’t have too many typical days because I have a lot of travel days, either by plane or train. I take a lot of trips to Washington, D.C. and I try to take only day trips. It’s cheaper plus I like my own bed.

That’s intense.

It is. People don’t realize that executive jobs take a lot of physical, mental and emotional stamina. Beyond a certain point, the jobs are not 8 to 5 or 9 to 6. It’s mental stamina because you have a lot of information to process, so mentally you have to be able to concentrate and not get so bogged down in everything that you can’t see through to what you need to do. The emotional stamina is that you have to deal with all kinds of people and different personalities and all sorts of emotions and problems. We’re in the problem solving business and it takes a lot but it’s rewarding. When you focus a lot on solving other people’s problems and working in the community, people tend to be less self-centered. If you’re obsessing about all the details of your own life, you can’t do your work.

What would be your advice for the young professional striving to achieve work/life balance and maintain emotional and mental stamina?

The best scenario is where you love your career and love your work because then it’s not working. You’re psyched when you get up in the morning. You’re ready to roll. If you find out that’s not the way you feel, then it’s the wrong train, wrong seat on the train or the wrong station – if you constantly feel that way. Everyone has bad days.

I was a young professional in the 80s and 90s, and to some extent, I didn’t think about work/life balance. However, we did work hard but play hard. It wasn’t conscious. But then I was in New Orleans. It’s not hard to work hard and play hard; it’s in the culture of the community.

I think work/life balance is important but it starts with endeavoring and hopefully finding a career choice that you love. I thank the Lord that I had the opportunity to do a lot of things and while I was doing the things I did, I enjoyed it.

In speaking about career choices, you’re the former Mayor of New Orleans, a great American city, and your dad was Dutch Morial, also a former Mayor of New Orleans. Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be Mayor?

My brother and I grew up in a civil rights/political family. When I was young, my father was a frontline civil rights person. He was an NAACP lawyer and President of the NAACP Branch. My mother was a civic activist. She was a teacher and was involved in the teacher’s union. She was involved in creating a women’s organization. At the time, the League of Women Voters didn’t allow Blacks and so my mother and her friends created their own organization called the Louisiana League of Good Government. My mother was the first President.

My parents were very much activists and I have great memories of attending marches and rallies and motorcades. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, my father got involved in politics. He ran for the House of Representatives in Louisiana and was the first African American elected. When he was in the House, I used to go spend a week or two during the summer with him in the Legislature. It was wonderful because I was 10 or 11 years old, and when I was with my dad I had total freedom. It’s not like he was trying to watch me or manage my steps.

But it was exciting and when I look back, those things had an impact. I don’t think it was conscious or intentional. Maybe it was in the DNA. Maybe it was in the water, but it was never forced, never pushed, never encouraged or discouraged. My parents let us make our own minds up about what we wanted to do. However, they were very community oriented so until I came to the League I couldn’t remember a fall where we weren’t involved in some campaign. Either my father was running, some friends were running, some allies were running, or I was running. It was a presidential election or a gubernatorial election or a judicial election. It was always a campaign rolling. Of course, in New Orleans we campaign differently. It’s fun. People have campaign parties, rallies, barbecues, picnics. We make it an endeavor. It’s very civic community oriented.

Yet, I don’t think it was ordained. I always wanted to be a lawyer but I had phases. I also wanted to be a priest and an architect. I wanted to play in the NFL, or the NBA. As a young person you go through all sorts of stages.

I became a bit of an activist when I got to high school. I always went to integrated schools. The first year we went to school was the second year the schools were integrated in New Orleans.

I was the first Black student in my middle school, Christian Brothers School in 1968. When I got to high school at Jesuit High School, there were only 14 Blacks in a school of 1100. I don’t know where we got the idea but we decided to start a Black student organization called the Student Organization for Black Achievement (SOBA). We used to meet once a week and I was the first President. We decided to go to the principal, a wonderful man at the time who has become a lifelong friend, and we said we wanted to put up a Black history month exhibit. We went to the library and we put this Black history month exhibit up and lo and behold the exhibit got defaced. “KKK” was scribbled on it. KKK literature and notes were stuck through the slots of our lockers. The school published a directory with everyone’s name and phone number in it, and we endured about 6 months of crank calls. It was a difficult time for us. It was my first dose of what I thought was well-intentioned activism facing an angry backlash or reaction from probably what was, at that time, a handful of students.

And it was directed at something I thought was positive.

NUL Offices
A NUL Office wall displaying a few of Marc Morial’s accomplishments as President.

Q: How did the National Urban League opportunity come about and what was your transition like from Mayor of New Orleans to leader of a national civil rights organization?

It’s very interesting, I left office because I was term limited. I served two terms and had a great career. When I left office, I joined Adams & Reese law firm. I figured I’d go practice law for several years, earn some money, and build a second or third phase of my career. Adams & Reese were extremely supportive and I owe them a great debt of gratitude. I began working there and got a call from a friend of mine who lived in the northeast. He said, “I just got a call from a headhunter who is working for the National Urban League because, as you know, Hugh Price is retiring, and I gave them your name. I told them I thought you’d be great and I just wanted to let you know.” I said, “Really? That’s interesting. You know, they probably have a succession plan and they’re just going through the motions.”

Then Charles Hamilton, chair of the search committee, called me. I had known Charles briefly because he represented Essence Magazine during the Essence Music Festival, and I met him probably 7 or 8 years earlier. He said they were conducting a search and would like to give me consideration and asked that I send in materials. I was six months into Adams & Reese, so I thought, “I have to send them this but I can’t whisper a peep to a soul.” I sent the materials and heard nothing for what seemed like many, many weeks. Then I got a call requesting me to come to New York in about 10 days to meet with the search committee. They wanted me to come on the day of the final four in 2003, when Syracuse was playing. True story! But they also wanted me to be there the morning after we’d planned this huge party for my son’s 1st birthday. So I had to fly up to NYC. I went to the interview and met with 4 people and they basically said they really enjoyed the meeting and would be back in touch with me. Then I didn’t hear anything. I’m very interested at this point; I’m thinking this is a very prestige opportunity. I grew up knowing Vernon Jordan because he was a friend of my parents, and of course Whitney Young’s name is iconic and here I am being asked to interview. It is an honor to even be asked.

So they called me on a Monday and asked if I could come back on Saturday to meet with the full search committee. It was about 20 people, though it seemed like 50! I sat and interviewed for what seemed like an hour.

Were you nervous?

A little, but not really. Having a large group was good for me because I was used to talking so I felt it was great.

After the interview on Saturday afternoon, I went straight to LaGuardia and was back in New Orleans. That Saturday night my wife told me, “I know that they are going to call you tomorrow morning and offer you the job.” I said, “Girl, you are outta your mind. No one is calling here on a Sunday morning.” 9am on Sunday morning the phone rang and my wife answered and said, “It’s that guy Charles Hamilton.” He called me to say they were very interested and the search committee had chosen me. This was in April of 2003. Then they asked me to come to New York within 2 weeks for the board meeting where they would vote. What I didn’t know is that they would vote and that the minute they voted they were going to say, “Now you’re in charge!”

I had actually gone to the library at Xavier University and pulled every book I could find on Whitney M. Young and the Urban League. I had written a two-page plan. I’m a note taker, a doodler, so I jotted down what I thought. One of the ideas I presented to the search committee in the interview process was the idea of the Legislative Policy Conference. The search committee was really interested in raising the NUL’s presence in Washington. I felt we have to have a professional staff down there, and we need a legislative conference to bring the full weight of the Affiliate Movement there.

What have been some of your major successes and challenges as President of the National Urban League?

One of the things I’m proud of is the fact that we now have ten affiliate CEO’s that came from the YP movement. That is a tremendous accomplishment. The YP’s were about 5 years old when I joined. At that time, the National Urban League’s leadership was very insistent on how to build for a new generation. I think we’ve made a big turn in that space. We have a new generation of affiliate CEO’s. We have tremendous growth and influence in the Young Professionals. People don’t see us only as your grandparent’s organization. We made some tremendous changes and I’m proud of that because it’s a very difficult thing to do with tradition-oriented institutions. We’ve made that change in the right way and it’s a transformative change that you see at the staff and affiliate levels.

I think we’ve created a much more coherent, performance based organization. We have a focus on economic empowerment, jobs, housing, entrepreneurship, and educating people so that they can get good jobs. We’ve made tremendous strides with technology and the use of technology. This year’s State of Black America had a whole digital strategy. We’ve made some important leaps in that space.

We’ve gone through rebranding. When I got here, every affiliate had a different version of the logo. We didn’t have a consistent look or conversation. We looked like a Mardi Gras float and it was a beautiful thing but it de-leveraged our strength. I had to put some ‘swag’ in the logo and put a little red in it. We softened the edges of the equal sign. We wanted to give it a more contemporary look.

The relationship between the Affiliate Movement and the National Office is also a lot stronger. There is healthy tension in the relationship but that’s just the way it is, because they’re separate entities from us. We’ve substantially made great strides when it comes to our economic empowerment work. We have more job training programs; we have a whole suite of programs in entrepreneurship. Our after school program is now at 35 sites. It’s a real important part of who we are and what we do.

The League is also acknowledged as one of the leaders of the community of civil rights organizations. I don’t think it was that way ten years ago. I think the League was there, but I don’t think people figured, “If there’s a convene on civil rights you better make sure the National Urban League is in the room.” We’re in the big three, or big four civil rights organizations. I think the other thing we’ve managed to do is build new alliances with Hispanic, Latino and Native American leadership. It’s a growing coalition of organizations of color in the United States which didn’t exist ten years ago.

As those alliances start to develop do you think that may change the demographics of the NUL?

It’s already changed the demographics of the people we serve. We’re serving about 25% Latino’s and Caucasians. People often ask why and it’s because we’re good at what we do. When you’re effective, you get customers. I always tell people we have a focus on the African American community but not exclusivity. We have an historic focus, a legacy focus on Black Americans but unemployed White Americans come to us. Foreclosed-on White Americans come to us. Latino kids who want an after school experience that they don’t have to pay for come to us. That’s the truth and it’s been growing for years. One of the things we have in parts of the nation like California, Texas and Florida, is a big presence where the growing Latino, Asian and Caribbean communities are. The recession has impacted a lot of middle income Whites so in some communities we are the provider of services. There’s no one else doing some of the things we do and no one else doing it on the scale that we do it. We have to embrace and not get into a phony fight, because that’s what it is. If you go back to the founding of the organization it was always multiracial from the beginning. The NUL has been African American focused in whom we served, but multiracial on our membership boards and the like.

How is your relationship with Washington and President Obama?

I think we have a good working relationship with the President and his team. I think we have to support the President and also keep pressure on him at the same time. We have to push our agenda. Right now we are pushing the jobs agenda and we will continue to push the jobs agenda because unemployment is high. We have to push, shove and support all at the same time.

Morial and President Obama at the NUL 2012 Conference in New Orleans, La. Morial served as Mayor of New Orleans from 1994-2002.

What do you think a Post Obama America looks like for minorities?

I’ve been thinking about that. It’s hard to predict the future. We have our maximum power when we vote in large numbers. At the end of the day, the big question and challenge for us is to sustain the record participation levels even if Obama is not on the ballot. One of the things that aggravate me is when people don’t vote or participate. People now see that when you participate you can bring about change. You can’t just vote and then sit back, however. It takes a push and a shove. It takes being supportive.

What do you see for the future of the NUL, especially with the current plan to move the headquarters to Harlem?

I think building an organization that can wage a sustained assault on poverty, income inequality, and economic empowerment is the future of the NUL. We really have to understand that that is our niche. We need to embrace that niche and we need to work to be the best at that niche. Three of the goals of the ‘I Am Empowered’ campaign are economic goals.

Organic growth of the affiliates is another component of the future NUL. I think you’ll see more affiliates with larger service areas. You’ll see some mergers and consolidations, which are good. We may add an affiliate here or there. Sustainability of what we have is important because we have a good footprint. We are in almost 75% of the states. We’re in most major metro areas with some exceptions. A lot of our affiliates are growing regionally. There are a couple more that we want to figure out how we can expand their footprint.

Why Harlem for the new location?

It’s time to go home. I think we should practice what we preach. We preach urban redevelopment. This is about practicing urban redevelopment. We preach asset ownership and real estate ownership. We should practice asset ownership and real estate ownership. We preach investing in underserved communities. We practice that with this community.

Secondly, when we evaluate from our standpoint for the long term, it makes more sense for us to build and own rather than rent. We’re more secure if we build and own. Truth be told, 70% of our affiliates own their own real estate. To a great extent, the trend in the movement is toward owning your own home.

What are your top 3 priorities for the National Urban League Young Professionals?

I want to see the YP grow in numbers and impact. We have 60+ chapters and I’d like to see as many affiliates as possible have a Young Professional chapter. Secondly, I’d like to see the YP’s continue to serve the movement as a volunteer core. YP is not just about YP leadership development. It’s about that but it’s also about being a volunteer core for the movement. The third thing is we want it to continue to be a pipeline for people to be involved in the Urban League at greater levels. Whether it’s at affiliate Board Members or affiliate CEO’s or staff. We want it to be an enhancer at all aspects. It’s a great way to introduce people to the League and maybe if we can get people engaged and involved they’ll make a life long commitment to be involved with us in some way.

What can YP’s expect at conference this summer?

It’s going to be exciting…substance rich and exciting. YP’s and the YP demographic has become almost the mainstream of the conference. People that come to our conference and have come to our conference for years sometimes marvel at the number of young people who are participating in our work. That’s really, really a good sign. We have to do it while respecting and affirming the contributions of people who are veteran Urban Leaguers. This is about the Urban League being a big tent but many demographics and people from different backgrounds under one tent.

NUL Conference begins today in Philadelphia!

What role does YP play with helping to increase the efforts to decrease the disparity among education and unemployment levels?

There are things that YP’s should do themselves for themselves, and that is to try to become as financially educated and as financially literate as possible. Also it’s to think about having their own asset building plan, whether its savings, investments, or buying a house. I think that’s a really important part of what YP’s should do.

Second, YP’s should also make it well known to the CEO’s of the affiliates that they are here to be a part of the affiliate, to help. That they’ll serve as mentors in the after school programs, and volunteer. I think the big thing is for YP not to become a separate unit but to become a part of a bigger whole. And that requires that there be a good working relationship between the YP President and the affiliate CEO.

What are you currently reading?

Who Stole the American Dream by Hedrick Smith, a book on income inequality given to me by Nancy Pelosi.

Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz by John McCusker. Ory is a jazz trombonist who played with Louis Armstrong.

I tend to read multiple books at one time. I’m also reading the biography of Walter Cronkite. My wife is a CBS employee, and Cronkite was a highly influential American and was also a pro-civil rights journalist. His coverage of the 1960’s was a very important influence in the change that took place. He was a political liberal and unabashedly so. I like well written biographies.

Thank you, Mr. Morial, for your time.

I appreciate this conversation. Thank you all. I appreciate you all.

More About Marc Morial


Entrepreneur.  Lawyer.  Professor.  Legislator.  Mayor.  President, U.S. Conference of Mayors.  CEO of the National Urban League, the nation’s largest civil rights organization.  In a distinguished professional career that has spanned 25 years, Marc Morial has performed all of these roles with excellence, and is one of the most accomplished servant-leaders in the nation.

As President of the National Urban League since 2003 he has been the primary catalyst for an era of change — a transformation for the nearly 100 year old civil rights organization.  His energetic and skilled leadership has expanded the League’s work around an Empowerment agenda, which is redefining civil rights in the 21st century with a renewed emphasis on closing the economic gaps between Whites and Blacks as well as rich and poor Americans. Under his stewardship, the League has had record fundraising success towards a 250MM, five year fundraising goal and he has secured the BBB nonprofit certification, which has established the NUL as a leading national nonprofit.

A graduate of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Economics and African American Studies, he also holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., as well as honorary degrees from Xavier University, Wilberforce University, and the University of South Carolina Upstate. Morial, a history, arts, music and sports enthusiast, has an adult daughter, and is married to broadcast journalist Michelle Miller.  Together they have two young children.


One thought on “In the League of Leaders: A Conversation with NUL President and CEO Marc Morial

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s