Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and civil-rights activist who had a seismic impact on race relations in the United States. Through his activism and inspirational speeches, he played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens in the United States, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and continues to be remembered as one of the most influential and inspirational leaders in history. So, what can we learn from his leadership?
Have a vision
It would be hard to find someone who would disagree that Martin Luther King Jr. had a compelling vision. His vision was enough to attract more than 200,000 people to participate in the historic March on Washington on August 28, 1963. In his famous I Have a Dream speech that day, Martin Luther King Jr. described his vision in many different ways, but perhaps the most succinct and compelling description of all was this sentence:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
You must take the time to craft a vision towards which your leadership is directed. Imagine the future state, what does it look like? Fully describe it in all of its detail and you’ll have all that you need when it comes time to share your vision with others. If you do not have a compelling vision of where you want to lead people, no one will follow you. You can only lead if people are willing to follow and why would they want to follow someone who is not going somewhere better?
Martin Luther King Jr. was far from fearless. When he first began to speak, he was scared before each and every major public appearance because he worried about how his ideas and speeches would be received. He worried that in spite of his best intentions, violent protests could break out as a result of his efforts. But as he said himself:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
Fear is an emotion which means you can master it. Speaking up and challenging the status quo is never easy, but if change is required, then you should confront your fear. Sure, it is easier to stay quiet and hope someone else solves the problem, but a true leader will confront their fear. He faced his fears head on, acknowledged them, talked about them, owned them, and then went ahead and did his work in spite of the fear he felt. The true definition of courage is acting in spite of your fear. You must learn to embrace your fear in order to then move past it and do what needs to be done.
Many have noted how Martin Luther King Jr. had a way of getting people to stop fighting and start working together toward a common goal or vision. In meetings he was often the quiet one. While others argued and debated, he would just listen, then clearly and calmly summarize what he had heard, and finally identify a path forward. He was a master at identifying just enough common ground between opposing viewpoints to get people working together who might otherwise only ever fight each other. He said:
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
Reflect on how your own leadership manifests itself in meetings and gatherings. If you find yourself talking more than listening, then you’re not on the right track. Develop your active and deep listening skills with an eye towards bringing even the most unlikely of people together in a common cause. Look for the common ground that unites people and use that as a launching pad for collaboration.
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