In celebration of Martin Luther King Day, on Monday I wrote an article titled Martin Luther King and The Power Of Liberating Beliefs. In our fast moving world, we mark special events, like Martin Luther King Day, only to forget about them the next day. One day #MLKDay is trending on Twitter. The next it isn’t.
That’s why I’ve decided to pause for a moment and explore more deeply what made King such a great leader of the civil rights movement. And what we, as leaders, can learn from his example.
Here are five leadership lessons I believe we can learn from Martin Luther King.
1. Great Leaders Possess Clarity of Vision
Great leaders are able to paint a compelling picture of a better tomorrow, articulating their vision over and over again, to help those they want to influence to picture what they see. While we don’t know exactly how many actual speeches he gave, we do know that King delivered over 450 speeches a year and spoke at over 2,500 events during his all too short life. King articulated his vision for a better future over and over again.
That vision is most famously set out in his speech to the March On Washington on 28 August, 1963.
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 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.”
2. Great Leaders Face Facts
Great leaders don’t sugar-coat reality; instead they face up to the most brutal facts, no matter how bad. This is known as the Stockdale Paradox. The Stockdale Paradox is named after Admiral James Stockdale , a high ranked US officer who was held prisoner during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured and beaten during this 7 year ordeal and had no reason to believe he would ever be released. But throughout his imprisonment, he kept his faith that not only would he get out, but he would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of his life.
Here is the paradox: While Stockdale had unshakeable faith that things would work out, he simultaneously accepted the brutal reality of his situation. So rather than bury his head in the sand, he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of other prisoners.
King’s speech at the March on Washington offers an optimistic oration about race while acknowledging the desperate reality of the situation.
This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
3. Great Leaders Act In Accordance With Their Higher Values
Great leaders call us to act in accord with our highest values or what Bill George calls our ‘true north’ in his book, Discover Your True North. It would have been easy for the leaders in the civil rights movement to change their tactics and resort to violence. Some did. However, like Nelson Mandela when he became president of South Africa, Martin Luther King called his people to a higher standard.
In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
4. Great Leaders Seize Their Opportunity
Dr King knew that his speech to the March On Washington had to be different. Although he was a national political figure, relatively few people outside the black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full address. With all three television networks offering live coverage of the March On Washington, his speech was his oratorical introduction to the nation.
“Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream’, his adviser Wyatt Walker told him. “It’s trite, it’s a cliche. You’ve used it too many times already.” After consulting with his aides, King headed off to his room to work on the speech. When he handed the text to an aide to print and distribute, the “I have a dream” section was not in it.
When it came to King’s turn to address the March, he started slowly, sticking closely to his prepared text. “I thought it was a good speech,” recalled John Lewis, the veteran civil rights leader, who had addressed the march earlier that day. “But it was not nearly as powerful as many I had heard him make. As he moved towards his final words, it seemed that he, too, could sense that he was falling short. He hadn’t locked into that power he so often found.”
King was winding up what would have been a well-received but, by his standards, fairly unremarkable oration when behind him, the gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, cried out: “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” Talking some months later of his decision to include the ‘I have a dream’ passage, King said: “I started out reading the speech, and I read it down to a point. The audience response was wonderful that day… And all of a sudden this thing came to me that… I’d used many times before… ‘I have a dream.’ And I just felt that I wanted to use it here.”
By inserting the “I have a dream” segment into his speech, Martin Luther King seized his big opportunity and stepped down from the lectern on the other side of history.
5. Great Leaders Persist
In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins asks his readers to imagine their task is to get a 5,000 pound flywheel rotating on its axle for as fast and as long as possible. He goes on to describe the huge effort you’d have to put in to just get the flywheel turning, let alone spinning with unstoppable momentum.
Earlier I explained that while we don’t know exactly how many actual speeches King gave, we do know that he delivered over 450 speeches a year and spoke at over 2,500 events during his all too short life.
450 speeches a year! 2,500 events. Now that’s persistence.
I’ve only scratched the surface in this article. Martin Luther King’s life is full of leadership lessons and deserves further study. To go deeper, you might like to listen to Michael Hyatt’s podcast, 5 Leadership Lessons From Martin Luther King, Jr. Michael has some different insights to me.
You might also like to read:
- Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King
- Discover Your True North by Bill George
- Good To Great by Jim Collins
- And watch the movie Selma.
Question: What do you most admire about Martin Luther King? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share let me know in the comments box below.
Explore These Additional Resources
Did you miss?
- Martin Luther King and The Power Of Liberating Beliefs
- Magnanimity: The Quality That Made Nelson Mandela An Exceptional Leader
- 4 Business Lessons From The Stockdale Paradox
- Did You Lead Or Follow In 2017?
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