Life Meets Textbook: Top Ten Leadership Lessons in Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday 2018

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. here is our take of some of the leadership lessons we can learn from this American icon. If we define leadership as the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal, then I think we can agree that Reverend King lived his life in an exemplary way.

Let’s look at some of the ways life meets textbook in the context of Leadership: 

  1. Did MLK Jr have a compelling vision? 

All great leaders inspire followers by developing a compelling vision and painting a picture of what is possible. 

On August 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered what would become his most famous speech — the “I Have a Dream” speech — in Washington, DC. The speech was so successful for a number of reasons.  But most importantly, King was able to communicate a vision of a future for the United States that moved, inspired, and motivated millions. It spurred people to action. The speech was a culmination of the years of hard work and persistence.

  1. Was MLK able to effectively communicate his vision in a compelling way? 

If one looks at the body of Dr. King’s speeches including the “I have a dream” speech, we learn that like most great leaders King was as exceptional communicator. Observers have noted that “King’s enunciation and voice were perfect, he used repetition powerfully, and he didn’t speak down to his audience”. I did not know that many of the most famous lines from the “I have a dream” speech were ad-libbed.

One of Dr. King’s greatest leadership takeaways was that a leader must insure their team knows why you do and what your organization does.  Effective leaders paint a vivid picture.  One of their primary jobs is to help their followers see what they see.

Ensure your team knows why they do and what they do. Talk openly and often of your organization’s mission and goals and who your organization is designed to help. Great leaders rally their troops by giving powerful speeches that bring everyone together and provide optimism. Dr. King did what leaders should do – he spoke from his heart and was authentic in addressing his audience.

  1. Did MLK hesitate or beat around the bush?

Dr. King didn’t sugarcoat his language or beat around the bush. He spoke truthfully and directly to those who would listen. Great leaders communicate clearly with their employees. They inform employees of what is going on, where we are headed, what is needed of them, and what they can expect going forward.  Honesty establishes confidence and trust.

  1. Did MLK live his beliefs?

Dr. King’s beliefs drove his actions every day. Not everyone will fight for a national cause like him but great leaders need to be mindful of their core values and be effective role models of critical values. Rising to the occasion, and practicing what you preach is a great motivator. In the words of James Kouzes, Barry Zosner, and Elaine Biech, great leaders “Model the Way” they set an example.

  1. Was MLK a catalyst for change?

Great leaders refuse to accept the status quo and create a sense of urgency. If a situation is not in alignment with their hopes and expectations.  Real leaders are not passive; they are active. They are unwilling to acquiesce to their circumstances.

Dr. King stated: “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Effective leaders are impatient—in a good way. They refuse to just sit by and let things take their natural course.

They have a sense of urgency and communicate it.

  1. Did MLK create alignment with his people and partner with the right people?

As an accomplished community activist Dr. King inspired action from within the community by developing a cadre of talented like-minded people. Along the way there were many disagreements among the Civil Rights movement but like all great leaders he  was able to create buy-in from key stakeholders.

Dr. King built a formidable network of religious leaders, activists, and community organizers – – and created alliances with powerful people — like President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Great leaders know that they are incapable of accomplishing everything they want to accomplish on their own. They work hard to form alliances with folks who have mutual interests and can help them get things done.

  1. To what degree did Dr. King embrace fear?

King didn’t hide his fear. Reportedly, he was scared before every speech and worried that his points wouldn’t be well received or that he would be met with violent protests. But instead of hiding, he talked about it and faced his fear head on.

  1. Leaders know that their agenda will always create some degree of hostility and opposition. The bigger the idea the greater the resistance, how good was MLK at anticipating opposition?

Dr. King anticipated what was needed to bring about change. He understood that a marginalized group of people, with limited education and economic means, could only become powerful by exercising their voting rights, as a group. Like a great chess player, he thought several moves ahead, starting by leveraging local coalitions, organizing voter registration, and busing blacks to voting stations in large numbers. He outsmarted the opposition by staying within the law and practicing non-violence.

  1. All leaders must make tough decisions, to what degree did MLK use critical thinking to weigh the pros and cons in making decisions?

Dr. King and his team considered multiple options when choosing targets and tactics, from non-violent civil disobedience to provocatively challenging segregation laws. Driven by an uncompromising vision of social justice, he always approached tactical decisions with a seasoned eye for risks, unintended consequences, and symbolic value. King and his powerful allies had the courage to make tough choices, such as moving forward with their campaign in the face of life-threatening attacks, including a bombing at King’s home and an assassination attempt years later.   

  1. When faced with adversity did MLK ever give up on his dreams?

While his life was cut tragically short, he died in pursuit of his dream and in spite of everything he faced, he never gave up on it. One of the things all great leaders have in common is that they are resilient. They are highly focused. They are persistent in pursuing their dreams.

Call to Action:

  • What is your reaction to this list of lessons?
  • Which of these lessons have you learned as a leader?
  • What are some other lessons we can all learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.?

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