Leadership Lessons From MLK

His Name Always Comes Up

Leadership Lessons from MLKIn my leadership classes, I always asked my students for the names of great leaders.  I’ve never had a class where Martin Luther King’s name didn’t come up.  This week is the 44th anniversary of his death.  We’re still struggling to realize his dreams, but we have made significant progress.  But why do we remember his so clearly?  Many of my students weren’t born when he died, but they identify him as a great leader.  He is still leading us.

What are the lessons that leaders can learn from MLK?

  • Dream –MLK dreamed a BIG dream.  His dream was not to be a good minister at a Church in Atlanta.  His dream was thought to be impossible among some of his followers–‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ . . I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  .  . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Sadly, at that time, that was a big dream.  Joyfully, some of this dream has come to pass.  There are young people reading this who can’t imagine the way it was.  Unfortunately, we still have the cancer of racism in our American body.  I’d like to think that had MLK lived, we’d be much further along.

As a leader, are your dreams big enough?  Is it enough to dream of making this year’s numbers, or finishing this project on time, or delivering the product in your strategy?  The difference between a leader and a great leader is the size of the dream.

  • Inspire  –MLK inspired people from all parts of the country, from all walks of life and of all ages to fight for his dream.  His dream became theirs.  His peaceful methods became theirs. He inspired through his words and through his actions.

As a leader, do you inspire or do you tell? Do you speak to some and ignore others?  Do you act your beliefs and words, or are you a hypocrite? Are you brave and do you speak truth to power, or do you go along.

  • Take Risk –MLK kept going despite the risks.  He knew them, but his dream was bigger.  His commitment was bigger.  Risk was a constant in his life as a black man in the South. The risks he took as a leader were breathtaking.

MLK’s risks put most of the risks that today’s leaders take (or don’t take) into perspective.  The stakes for most of us are much smaller.  Even so, we resist risk.  As MLK knew, change doesn’t happen without risk.  I worry that readers will take this point wrong–I don’t want to diminish MLK’s accomplishment by comparing the risk he lived with with the risks that leaders take today.  Understanding and taking risk, however, is essential to great leadership.  Risking your life isn’t necessary, but risking your ego is.  Risking your identity is.  Risking being wrong or failing is necessary for great leadership. When was the last time you took a breathtaking risk?

  • Be Persistent He was tired.  He was exhausted.  He kept going.  He kept standing.  He kept inspiring.  He kept dreaming.  He got results.

He went to jail! To Jail!  To be a great leader, you’ve got to keep believing  it can happen.  You’ve got to help your people believe that it can be done.  Pretty much every great person I know is persistent.  Persistent in the face of set backs, failures, temptations and loneliness.

MLK was a great leader.  He was a great man.  He continues to inspire me to be a better person and a better leader.  Thinking about MLK and his contributions to my world gives me perspective on what is possible and how much more growing I have to do.

2 Comments

Filed under Career Goals, Communication, Executive Development, Leadership, Personal Change

2 responses to “Leadership Lessons From MLK

  1. Jeff Crigler

    Its interesting how profound MLK’s influence is. Since she was about 10… I have known Rachel Manteuffel. If you haven’t heard of her yet…. I know you will. She is destined for greatness. Right now she works at the Washington Post. But even before she got the job, an article she submitted to the Post first exposed the scandoulous abridging of the MLK quote on the new monument in DC. Even Maya Angelou thought it was reprehensible and spoke with her about her revelatory editorial in the Washington Post that started the effort to change the monument’s inscription. I heard a couple of Sunday’s ago that she got a thank you call from the Ken Salazar the U.S. Secretary of the Interior

    I’ve spoken to Rachel, a young white women in her mid twenties about MLK and about her Post article. My take is that she has seamlessly integrated the Dream with her own Christian ideas about the Kingdom of God. This young women is an emerging leader… no doubt soon to be a major editorial voice in the media. And I believe she is pretty heavily influenced by a modern MLK that recapitualtes all the Sunday School she grew up with.

    Having watched her grow from a youth leader to a member of the Church Vestry, it occurs to me that you, Jo, have much in common with my friend Rachel. Both are leaders, bending the arc of justice, and inspired by Dr. King.

    • Yeah, I was thinking of his IMPACT. How many Presidents made as much CHANGE happen as he did. Obviously there were lots of others involved, but he was the change master–inspiring, orchestrating, comforting, re-inspiring, fighting off the negative. He was truly a great man.

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