You’ve been there before—at a party or gathering—and someone poses the question, “If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?” Invariably, many of the names tossed around are of famous people, obvious leaders who have made some type of significant impact on society. They tend to be people who have sparked a loyal following, people who somehow possess a persona that symbolizes something bigger than themselves.
One of those commonly shared who-you’d-like-to-meet names is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Only a very few individuals ever gain the level of prominence and influence that Dr. King achieved in a life that only lasted 39 years—and while his impact was enormous, he was only one man. He possessed characteristics that made him one--and arguably THE greatest leader of the civil rights movement across the United States, and those same qualities are ones any leader at any level can internalize and exemplify.
We’d like to explore four key traits of leaders worth following within the context of the life and work of Dr. King, through some of his most memorable quotes.
PASSION FOR A PURPOSE BIGGER THAN SELF:
“If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live.”
While most of us don’t lead teams responsible for managing life and death matters, we can all understand what it means to believe so strongly in a purpose that we actually place it above our own interests. When a leader is able to inspire others to understand and embrace an organization’s purpose, demonstrated through his or her own consistent actions and visible commitment, teams become able to transcend the kinds of individual preferences and personal posturing that can cause stagnation, frustration and even dysfunction. Synchronicity that comes from a group’s embrace of a core purpose allows decision making to be clearly and intentionally guided—with the leader taking a role of guiding, reinforcing and rewarding behaviors and work that exemplifies and furthers the purpose.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had an unwavering commitment to moving the nation toward equality of all people through peaceful means that would build toward unity—and, in his case, was willing and did perish for the cause. His example in life and death served to solidify and perpetuate a movement of millions, a legacy of purpose that continues to rally people decades later.
CONTINUOUSLY LIVES VALUES:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
“The time is always right to do the right thing.”
Integrity is consistently one of the top traits cited by all levels of employees as most essential to good leadership. Integrity breeds accountability and transparency; when team members have confidence that their leaders will act ethically, they begin to have faith their leaders will do what is right for the business and for them personally. When leaders at the top level of an organization exhibit consistent behavior that clearly supports a commitment to integrity and a set of core values, followers are more likely to model the same and expect it from their peers.
In the case of Dr. King, his writings and public speaking never failed to illustrate clearly defined values reinforced by his faith. He possessed an unwavering commitment to continuous encouragement of those of all races to behave honorably and with sincerity toward one another. He never stopped asking people at all levels of society to do right by each other and embrace peace, believing that changing hearts could change minds and ultimately change policy. At age 35, Dr. King became the youngest person to ever receive a Nobel Peace Prize—an honor that fundamentally came about because of the enormous energy generated by a life of leadership unquestionably defined by integrity and a solid set of values.
INVESTS IN AND SUPPORTS OTHERS:
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In its simplest form, investing in and supporting people is about helping others get better. When leaders empower and offer focused guidance to their teams, it sparks a sense of loyalty and inclusion among followers. Employees who have enjoyed the benefit of leaders who have encouraged their growth and offered sound advice for how to excel personally and professionally will, as a rule, give back many times over.
Similarly, a true characteristic of a leader is one who stands up for his or her team members when things get challenging. When a team knows they have the freedom to responsibly speak up, take risks and even make mistakes—and still have a leader willing to stand behind them—the result leaves a long-lasting positive impact on a team’s ability to push harder, be more creative and think bigger.
The effect Martin Luther King, Jr. had on the civil rights movement was in part due to his willingness to get into the trenches and not just stand behind his followers, but literally march shoulder to shoulder. As he guided the kinds of peaceful mass demonstrations that ultimately lead to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he was able to lead hundreds of thousands of people to support the cause because he was there with them in every way. He moved far beyond speeches and directing from the sidelines, investing heart and soul in building up others so they would feel empowered as well. When public protests turned controversial and even violent, Dr. King stayed firm in his movement for peace and justice. Those who followed him knew he was there to support and encourage them, even at personal cost; the loyalty and commitment this inspired has lasted long beyond the span of his life.
INSPIRES AND DISPLAYS TRUST:
“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”
Trust and its role in leadership has to flow two ways. When a leader is able to exhibit genuine trust in his or her followers, the result brings about a real and fundamental impact on the cohesiveness and morale of a team. Followers not only know they are counted upon to carry out their work because their leader recognizes and trusts in their abilities to be a successful, solid contributor—they also gain the confidence to stretch their wings to grow and develop their own skills and leadership. Team members who are part of a demonstrated culture of trust know they have room to push harder, be creative, ask questions and make mistakes, all of which begins to fuel and ultimately sustain excellence.
Conversely, the best leaders inspire trust. In order for a team to feel genuine trust, the leader must consistently deliver on promises, be unfailingly honest, be open and humble, show willingness to stand up for his or her followers. Leaders need to be human, relatable and available to listen to the needs of their teams.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was an incredibly effective leader in part due to the trust he earned from his followers—and the trust he placed in them. He stood firm in the face of adversity to defend and support those around him, but he also made it clear he couldn’t do the work of changing a culture to embrace equality on his own. He trusted and empowered others to carry his message where he could not be, allowing the cause to be amplified until it was resoundingly heard in every part of the nation and far beyond.
Circling back to the fantasy dinner party idea and what it would be like to have Dr. King present, it seems probable that he would actually listen to the dinner conversation more than speak. Evidence shows his most historic and resonant speeches came about as a result of intently observing and listening to his audience in real time, going off script and reacting in ways that amplified his audiences’ hopes and dreams. The many other leadership characteristics attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. were only as effective as his ability to listen to the people around him—and respond with energy and conviction. At Milestone Leadership we believe when any leader actively, sincerely and consistently listens to his or her followers, they will possess the keys to understanding what is needed by their organization and the individuals that compose it.
Who would you invite to your Fantasy Leader Dinner?