Dr. King: Lessons in Leadership

On Monday we celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At the blog, we’re not quite ready to leave that day behind just yet. This year, it seems important to stick with Dr. King a little while longer.


For students of civil rights, leadership, non-violent resistance, communication and community building, the life of Dr. King offers a cascade of lessons.


On my personal quest to be a better leader I have looked often to King’s life, writings and speeches for inspiration and learning. What makes Dr. King such an enduring figure is that regardless of how often you read his speeches, letters and famous quotes you somehow come away with a new insight every time you delve into his work. He was an incredible man. And like all the greats– Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Roosevelt, Churchill—his message transcends time and offers us contemporary lessons and solutions if we care to look.


This year, I’ve concentrated on the leadership lessons we can learn from Dr. King’s life.


First, great leaders do not sugar-coat reality.


Indeed, regardless of how painful… great leaders tell the truth, even if the truth is dangerous, ugly, uncomfortable and messy. Dr. King laid bare during his lifetime this nation’s ongoing struggle with race and inequality. It would have been safer to go along to get along, but we wouldn’t be celebrating his legacy if he did.


Second, great leaders engage the heart as well as the mind. Dr. King’s gifts—his soaring rhetoric, the poetry of his writing, the beauty and power of his message–weren’t bogged down in statistics or dry facts, but enhanced by his magnificent abilities to move us as people and to point out how our fates are tied together as brothers and sisters.


King also taught us that great leaders do not accept the status quo and that they create a sense of urgency for positive change.


Again, lesser leaders might have been content to shoot for incremental gains in civil rights—not Dr. King. He framed the issue as an urgent one for our nation and as a result achieved monumental progress in what has proved to be an enduring struggle.


Dr. King refused to settle or buckle after setbacks, another leadership lesson we can learn from his example. Instead, he urged his followers to keep their eyes on the prize. He had a leader’s ability to communicate a clear vision for a better future and throughout the journey he always acknowledged the sacrifices and contributions of those working alongside him. He dared us, invited us, and taught us to dream—that’s what leaders do.


As a result, the movement wasn’t about one man’s vision; it was about a movement that was bigger than any one person.


And that’s why we celebrate and why Dr. King will be remembered as long as good men and women strive for a more perfect union.


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