The Gumbo Coalition by Marc Morial Book Summary

The Gumbo Coalition, 10 Leadership Lessons That Help You Inspire, Unite, and Achieve by Marc Morial


Former New Orleans’ mayor, Marc Morial created coalitions – symbolized by gumbo, his city’s signature stew – in every leadership position he held. From turning around New Orlean’s corruption and crime as mayor to unifying the National Urban League, where he is now CEO, Morial relates stories of his life and career to illustrate 10 leadership lessons. Leaders seeking to make their organizations more diverse and inclusive will relish his recipe. 


  • New Orleans’ signature stew, gumbo, grew from the variety of its people. To lead and foster diversity, follow 10 rules:
  • 1. “Speed means nothing without direction” – To be a leader, make a plan.
  • 2. “A wise man changes, a fool never” – Leaders know when to be flexible.
  • 3. “With one canoe, we can avoid the waterfall” – Leaders build consensus.
  • 4. “They’re not refugees” – Being compassionate is a leadership strength.
  • 5. “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” – Leaders can make good decisions under pressure.
  • 6. “Get ready for the big payback” – Leaders can handle unexpected developments.
  • 7. “Ants versus crabs” – Leaders figure out when to lead and when to follow.
  • 8. “Working the room” – Leaders build deliberate networks.
  • 9. “Persistence is always a winning formula” – Leaders don’t let disappointment stop them.
  • 10. “Innovation requires seeing new paths” – Leaders find fresh solutions.
The Gumbo Coalition Book Cover

The Gumbo Coalition Book Summary

New Orleans’ signature stew, gumbo, grew from the variety of its people. To lead and foster diversity, follow 10 rules.

The diverse culture of New Orleans, Louisiana is a testament to the Black, Native American, French and Spanish residents who created it. This melding of perspectives manifests in Mardi Gras celebrations, jazz and New Orleans’ signature dish, gumbo – a recipe people made when money was tight. Without enough of any one item to make a meal, cooks combined what they had to make a spicy stew of chicken, sausage, shrimp and vegetables, mostly okra, celery and onions.

“Creating gumbo…is about building a coalition of unique ingredients or communities…each crucial in its own way.”

Marc Morial – who as mayor transformed then-corrupt and crime-ridden New Orleans and later remade the National Urban League (NUL) as its CEO – took inspiration from gumbo’s diversity of ingredients and applied that insight to leadership. To accomplish his goals, he built “Gumbo Coalitions,” powerfully inclusive groups. He draws ten valuable management lessons from those experiences:

1. “Speed means nothing without direction” – To be a leader, make a plan.

Before winning the New Orleans’ mayoral election in 1994, Morial, then 35, created a one-year plan to reduce the city’s homicide rate, the highest per capita in the country. Upon gaining office, he implemented it immediately. The mayor moved desk-based police officers to the streets, imposed a curfew on young people and funded summer day camps. He created a city-wide work program involving an “overtly public” lottery to select teenage participants – thus removing any taint of favoritism.

Morial’s first lesson of leadership is to spring into action. Develop and write a plan with your team members. Include realistic goals with weekly and monthly timelines so you can measure progress. Don’t bog down in research. Put the plan into action once your objectives are clear.

2. “A wise man changes, a fool never” – Leaders know when to be flexible.

Plans can go awry at any point; the trick is not to delay fixing the problem. Changing course can be daunting, but getting the results you’ve targeted is important. When you have to change your plans, make sure the change will affect your goals positively, not negatively. Any modification is a risk, so analyze it carefully. Communicate the change and the analysis behind it only when necessary.

3. “With one canoe, we can avoid the waterfall” – Leaders build consensus.

In 1995, the city passed the $350 million “Rebuild New Orleans Now!” bond issue, the biggest in its history, with 70% voter approval. Morial overcame divisive special interest groups by explaining to each constituency – education, neighborhoods, shipping and hospitality – how the bond issue could succeed if they worked together. Initially, some groups laughed at him, while others became angry, but forming a coalition worked. By understanding each group’s problems, Morial showed its members how to find a solution. Individually, no one group had the votes needed, but together, they prevailed.

“In the end, the plan eventually adopted included something for everyone. It was truly a gumbo.”

When you face a goal or problem, form a group that represents everyone involved so you all work “as one.” To engender consensus, speak with different people or groups one at a time so they have a voice and you have a chance to win them over and banish divisiveness. Take a “win-win approach,” while realizing that you won’t get everything you want. Do what’s necessary to achieve your goal even if it means occasionally using “dynamite” or leaving recalcitrant groups behind.

4. “They’re not refugees” – Being compassionate is a leadership strength.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Morial – by then the leader of the National Urban League – felt angry about the lack of coordinated city, state and federal response. More than 1,200 people died, and the storm displaced 400,000 others. Leaving people stranded in the city’s sports arena with no food, water or medical supplies was bad enough, but Morial was infuriated that media pundits and politicians kept calling the mostly Black, impoverished, storm-displaced citizens, “refugees.” The lack of immediate, compassionate action by officials during the aftermath of Katrina changed how the United States dealt with subsequent natural disasters.

“Elected leaders…showed neither strength nor compassion in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”

Morial’s fourth lesson calls for leading with “strength through compassion,” which means getting the job done while directly alleviating people’s pain. In business, this translates to reviewing the financial and human costs of a decision. Define what you see as “right” based on “universally accepted social morals and values.” As a leader, do what you think is right, even if you don’t get credit. Always consider how your decisions affect other people.

5. “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” – Leaders can make good decisions under pressure.

On September 11, 2001, Morial was in Washington, DC, with members of the US Conference of Mayors. The group was trying to engage President George W. Bush’s White House about the way various mayors had reduced crime rates and improved life in their cities. Before the meeting began, the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center. The second followed. With tragedy unfolding around them as another hijacked plane hit the Pentagon, the mayors huddled in a bunker for elected officials, presentation in hand, realizing they had to shift course entirely. Thirty days later, they presented their new safe cities plan to the full US Conference of Mayors. The mayors tried to take into account the reactions and needs of their constituents in light of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They understood their planned celebration of high-achieving cities and their mayors was no longer relevant.

To implement lesson five in the face of a problem that needs solutions, write down the positive and negative aspects of your available options. Imagine possible repercussions of your decisions in various timeframes of one, two or three months. Do your “homework” before making a decision. Stress can push leaders into negative reactions, so keep “grounded” to focus your mind. Be a “healthy skeptic” by verifying anything anyone tells you. And, “don’t delegate and disappear.” Connect with your staff in quick phone calls, texts or emails.

6. “Get ready for the big payback” – Leaders can handle unexpected developments.

Morial’s sixth lesson is a corollary to his previous one – prepare for the unexpected. In 1998, while US mayors were negotiating with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Gun Manufacturers Association of America (GMAA), someone shot and killed one of Morial’s friends. He left the negotiations and sued the NRA and GMAA. Immediately, the NRA attacked him with misinformation campaigns, claiming the city gave guns from a New Orleans’ gun swap program directly to criminals. The organization also threatened to cancel a convention scheduled in New Orleans and had their spokesman, legendary actor Charlton Heston, take center stage. Although Morial lost the case, he doesn’t regret his actions. What he regrets is his insufficient preparation for the NRA’s reaction to his lawsuit. 

“The ability to deal with surprises…is often the dividing line separating the good and average leaders from those who are exceptional, those who become transformational.”

The episode taught the mayor the need to anticipate people’s reactions. When you encounter a forceful blow, step back, reflect and call on your “playbook of scenarios” to help you. Responses can come from your “allies, competitors or opponents.” Before you take an initial step, know what your next step will be. As a leader, have plans in place for natural disasters, mass shootings and terrorism.

7. “Ants versus crabs” – Leaders figure out when to lead and when to follow.

When civil rights leaders met with then-US president Barack Obama in 2010, Morial planned to follow an agenda similar to the one that had worked in other presidential meetings. The context of “preaching truth to power” was the same, but everyone in the Oval Office that day was Black.

The meeting touched on many aspects of “Black America,” including court appointments, health care and employment. After the meeting, two Black intellectual leaders, Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, called the civil rights leaders “sellouts.” The two men accused them of doing a “shuck-and-jive tap dance” for the president instead of pushing for a substantial agenda for the Black community. Many in the Black community believed the two chastised the president with more energy than they had his white predecessors.

Morial likened the situation to a sermon he’d heard about “crabs in a barrel” – crabs knock down other crabs trying to get to the top, while ants work harmoniously together. Smiley and West had been “crabs.” Ultimately, the two men led when they should have followed. “Tiger Teams,” or working groups, can help you know when to take charge and when not to. If you create a cross-disciplinary group to solve a specific issue, do away with traditional roles and hierarchies. Engage the whole team by giving less senior members meaningful tasks and a chance to distinguish themselves.

8. “Working the room” – Leaders build deliberate networks.

Working with new people, such as those on an interdisciplinary team, gives leaders insight into different aspects of their organizations. This combines with Morial’s eighth lesson: network with intent. Expand your understanding of other people. To become good at networking, even if you are an introvert, nourish your curiosity about them. Introduce yourself and ask about the other person’s day. Listen to the responses and build on them.

“So many of the victories…have come thanks to this ability to build coalitions.”

Travel increases your curiosity, but you also can seek different cultures in your own city. Meeting new people equips you to understand different perspectives. As an executive, meeting with people who work at a lower level of your organization can give you insights into your business and a stronger connection with those who do much of the company’s work. When networking, be genuine. Use technology and social media to keep in touch with the people in your networks.

9. “Persistence is always a winning formula” – Leaders don’t let disappointment stop them.

Morial wanted to get an NBA team to return to New Orleans. It was an uphill climb. When the New Orleans Jazz had left the city for Utah in 1979, the mayor’s father, Dutch Morial, had sued the NBA. The NBA attorney at the time, David Stern, was now its commissioner, and Marc Morial had to rebuild a relationship with him. The first possible new team failed because businessmen misrepresented their finances. New Orleans built a new arena, but lost another team to a rival city. Then, the Charlotte Hornets wanted to move to New Orleans. To win NBA approval, the city had to secure pledges from future season ticket holders and build a practice arena.

“Though rejected and momentarily dejected, when another opportunity arose, we didn’t wallow in past defeats.”

A coalition of New Orleans’ business, political and community leaders demonstrated to Stern that they were “unified and energetic.” Tenacity paid off as state and city agencies secured an arena lease and money for a new practice facility. Democratic and Republican leaders united to line up season ticket purchasers. The team’s move to New Orleans – where it became Pelicans – has “paid off big-time” for the city. Lesson nine counsels you to stay strong in the face of adversity. Seek other people’s views so you can check if you’re on course. Work hard to realize your goals in spite of setbacks, while maintaining your balance and striving to keep your energy levels and positivity high. ????

10. “Innovation requires seeing new paths” – Leaders find fresh solutions.

The NUL long fought for “racial and gender equality.” It lobbied companies and politicians to create more diversity, but achieved little. It needed a fresh approach. In 2009, the NUL and other rights organizations decided that to win their support for Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal, the company needed to certify its commitment to diversity in writing. This meant rights groups could review the company’s progress, and use various measurements to keep it accountable. By finding a new solution, the rights organizations changed the trajectory of diversity at a Fortune 50 company, the first of many it worked with. The effects of the agreement are manifest at MSNBC, where Black anchors deliver news and commentary.

The tenth lesson focuses on finding new solutions. Learn from past problems, and set obtainable goals. Work through issues while knowing that you may need to move in another direction. Be curious about how others solved problems. Embrace technology’s “fail fast” mantra to remove the stigma of failure. The faster you try new things, the faster you’ll know if they work.

About the Author

Marc Morial

Former mayor of New Orleans, Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.

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