James Brown and the Super Bad Stakeholder Engagement

James Brown and the Super Bad Stakeholder Engagement

Bridge-building lessons from the Godfather of Soul
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James Brown, Godfather of Stakeholder Engagement

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 - 2:20pm


James Brown’s life was as dynamic and complex as his music. He was a powerhouse entertainer, a troubled soul and abuser, and the Gepetto to funk’s Pinocchio.

He was also a pioneer of stakeholder engagement.

Before it was fashionable to build bridges between polarized groups, the Godfather of Soul aimed to do just that. Risking alienation from his peers and admirers alike, Brown sought to engage an unlikely ally in order to improve life for Black Americans. The result of his engagement efforts provides insights broadly applicable to stakeholder engagement - the process of finding common ground between uncommon allies in support of a shared goal.


Having dominated the Chitlin’ Circuit and achieved national fame, James Brown had risen to the rank of bona fide cultural icon by the 1960’s. Furthermore, Brown emerged as a leading figure in the civil rights movement and, like a conk-sporting Paul Revere, even saved Boston once. As highlighted in the documentary Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, Brown endorsed presidential candidate and Quentin Tarantino look-alike Hubert Humphrey in 1968, believing that Humphrey was the best man for the job and ideally positioned to continue the advancements in civil rights under President Johnson. Brown made it clear at the time that he was endorsing the man (Humphrey), not the party (Democratic).

He stayed true to this philosophy when he performed at Richard Nixon’s 1969 inauguration and formally endorsed him in 1972, but criticism from the activist community dismissed his politics as misguided, a first-class sellout, or both. However, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business identified with the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach of Nixon’s proposed “Black Capitalism.”

Growing up as an impoverished shoe shiner in rural Georgia, Brown was the American dream personified, owing his success to hard work and determination. Not acknowledging his accomplishments as an outlier, Brown viewed the country’s systemic racism and inequality as a character-building hurdle, not as the full-stop impediment it was. Moreover, Brown believed that by having direct access to the president--regardless of political platform--he could do more for the Black community than as an outsider. His logic supported the candidate most likely to win, which in 1972 was Nixon.

Tricky Dick Earns His Reputation  

Nixon won his re-election campaign in a landslide and despite jeers from his peers; Brown secured the oval office meeting he coveted. JB had Nixon’s ear. The Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk had overcome the detractors and achieved his goal of influencing the President-- almost.

In a bigoted audio recording befitting a mustache-twirling miscreant, Nixon was caught being Nixon, bemoaning,  “Too much black stuff. No more blacks from now on; just don't bring them in here,” moments before his meeting with Brown. Nixon then chatted with Brown, feigning civility for a few minutes before evading his request to honor the late Dr. King Jr. with a national holiday.

Brown had earned a private meeting with the president, but failed to make any headway because of the shortsightedness of his approach. Below are some takeaways from the Soul Brother Number One’s experience.

Lessons Learned

  1. Bridge Divides – Before breaking down his failures, it is worth giving JB credit for embracing a key tenant of stakeholder engagement - humanizing the demonized “other”. Brown could have accepted the popular narratives that perpetuate cycles of polarization, namely “politicians = bad,” but instead chose to assess the individual stakeholders. This is the most important part of engaging with an uncommon ally: judge the individual on their actions, not on the narrative surrounding their camp. Unfortunately for Brown, he misjudged Nixon’s character.

  1. Have the Right Ear – JB had the president’s ear but Nixon was the wrong guy. It’s important to identify the right internal advocates and influencers who are often not the President or CEO. Finding someone with less influence but will bring an open mind to the discussion is often more valuable than engaging with preconceptions higher up the chain. Change can take time and requires the investment of those committed to a cause. Additionally, it is important to know the reputation of the people you are engaging and to trust actions over rhetoric. Brown was compelled by the idea of ‘Black Capitalism’ despite evidence that this was a flawed notion in practice.

  1. Understand the Landscape – Brown had the passion and influence, but lacked the expertise to navigate the political landscape needed to make changes like MLK Jr. Day a reality. Had he possessed a better understanding of the process for implementing a national holiday, he may have approached an influential Senator or used his meeting to discuss specific policy recommendations with Nixon. Without a thorough grasp of the levers for action, to achieve lasting, systemic change is an uphill battle.

Though The Godfather of Funk didn’t excel at stakeholder engagement, his admirable efforts to bridge opposing groups and cultures was much like his approach to music-- bold and ahead of its time.

Marvin Smith is a Senior Manager of Stakeholder Engagement at Future 500, a nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds — often corporations and NGOs — to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability and social challenges.