Five Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr.

[This post was originally published on Jan 17th, 2011 and ranked one of the top posts on The Buzz Bin. It is only fitting that we remind ourselves today of the great leadership that Sir Martin Luther King Jr. exhibited in the fight for civil rights and try to rise above mediocrity and dogma in our daily lives.]

Today we won’t talk about social media, PR or marketing but instead I would like to dedicate this post to one of the greatest visionary leaders the world has ever seen, Martin Luther King Jr. At 33, Martin Luther King was leading the Civil Rights movement, at 34 he stirred the nation with his “I have a dream” speech and at 35 he was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize. We could spend our entire lives discussing Martin Luther King’s leadership traits but if we were to highlight some of his key qualities that everyone can imbibe in our daily lives, let’s start with these:

Be a transformer not just a task master: There are leaders who make good task masters, get the job done and believe in exercising control over their team (Authoritarian). There are those that see the big picture and believe in overall growth of the team and themselves (Evolutionary). The ones that take a hands-off approach to managing and would rather delegate everything to the team and not be held accountable are what we call Background leaders. Martin Luther King was a TRANSFORMATIONAL leader, a visionary that dares to question the status-quo and takes the risk to venture into un-chartered territories. There is a big difference between leaders/managers that strive to make things better and constantly question the norm to attain higher goals versus those that are happy repeating the daily grind. Which one are you?

Be a visionary and dare to follow that vision: At a time when African Americans had to sit on designated seats on the bus, King dreamt of an America that would rise above color and creed. I am sure he faced the wrath of countless naysayers who thought that was Utopian and would never ever happen and look where we are today? The ability to DREAM and follow that VISION is a powerful attribute and history shows that some of the great leaders were even greater visionaries. If King didn’t dream of equal civic rights, we wouldn’t be living in a society where cultural differences are celebrated; if Steve Jobs were to listen to us and only build computers, we wouldn’t have revolutionary innovation like the iPhone. As marketers, PR, social media experts, everything involved in the business of BIG IDEAS, we must try to be visionaries and if we can’t then at the least encourage that thought process.

Be an effective communicator to build a movement: To this day when I listen to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, I am filled with a sense of emotion that inspires me to “Stop complaining and do something productive.” That’s the power of effective communication. Understand not all of us can be great public speakers but we can definitely work on message delivery. Do you remember that manager that had all the fancy degrees in Marketing but failed miserably in getting his team to dream big and achieve higher results? Yes, we all have had one of those in our career but then I also remember the ones that were so good at persuading us to go that extra mile. King’s oratorical skills surely served as an ignition to build the Civil Rights movement. We, as leaders within our organization, can learn from that to be persuasive communicators that bring in a sense of excitement to projects versus a dull outlook.

Be inspired and inspire to pursue new directions: One of my favorite Martin Luther King quotes is, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” In order to move forward no matter what the situation, one needs a perennial source of inspiration and a good leader is who has the ability to be inspired and also inspire his/her followers. I remember someone saying this to me a while back, “An inspirational leader is someone who asks you to go to hell and you actually look forward to the trip.” Inspiration is the fuel that re-starts the engine when the going gets tough. Do you feel enthused and inspired to go to work every day? Does your team feel energized and motivated to do more around you? If yes, then you are an inspirational leader.

Be willing to walk the talk: Martin Luther King travelled over six million miles and gave over 2,500 speeches to fight for civil rights. That’s called literally walking the talk. The vision, the great speech, the inspiration would all fall flat if at the end of the day, as a leader you can’t walk the talk. Big dreams, big innovation, big campaigns and big ideas also rely on big execution. The willingness and ability to wear the execution hat and get your hands dirty is a great validation that my leader can walk the talk. I hope as we all advance in our careers and do more of what we call strategic work, we also retain the ability to execute on tactics. Your team respects you that much more when you can demonstrate the walk followed by the talk.

If “leadership” and Martin Luther King are two of your favorite topics, you might enjoy this playlist from TedTalks.

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