Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arguably one of the greatest leaders ever produced by the Black community. His leadership, buttressed by the efforts of thousands of activists who struggled with him, shaped the world that we live in today. For years, members of the Black Conscious and Pan-African community have complained about the lack of leadership among our people, without taking time to learn lessons from our most successful leaders.
Namely, the success of Dr. King’s leadership has shown us the importance of painting a vivid picture of the future, calling people to act according to their highest values, acknowledging the sacrifice of our followers, and having the courage to acknowledge wrongdoing.
Paint A Vivid Picture of the Future
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
Observe how beautifully and perfectly the vision above was created and delivered! The reason why this particular passage of Dr. King’s speech is so often repeated is because of its ability to paint a picture of the future that was to come. Would Dr. King have been as effective if he simply recited statistics or facts? Its doubtful.
Facts tell, stories sell. The ability to quote facts and the words of other great leaders will not make you a great leader. If you want to become a great leader, you must become a great storyteller. Learn to use metaphors and mental imagery to paint a picture of your purpose as a leader, and exactly where you would like to take your organization. Vision is the one thing that gives meaning to the trivial tasks of the day. Vision is what keeps your followers talking and moving.
Paint a vivid picture of a better tomorrow for your followers to see and they will follow you until that vision is achieved.
Call People to Act According To Their Highest Values
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
It would have been easy for Dr. King to change his strategy and embrace a more violent strategy against racism. He and his leaders struggled against blood-thirsty racists, filled with hate, greed, and fear for what they believed to be a Negro uprising.
Rather than fighting fire with fire, Dr. King encouraged his followers to “not be guilty of wrongful deeds” , and to ”forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline”.
While we definitely agree that there is a time and a place for violent resistance, Dr. King’s leadership embraced the superior virtues of brotherhood and non-violent integration. As a leader, you too must embrace the highest virtues of your organization, while encouraging your followers to do so as well.
You may be able to lead a group of people with violence, hate-speech, greed, and the pursuit of material pleasures, but you will not lead for long.
If you have not considered what your highers virtues are, consider these
- The Seven Contrary Virtues which are specific opposites to the Seven Deadly Sins: Humility against pride, Kindness against envy, Abstinence against gluttony, Chastity against lust, Patience against anger, Liberality against greed, and Diligence against sloth.
- The Theological Virtues: Love, Hope and Faith, as defined by St. Paul (who placed love as the greatest of them all).
- The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice.
- The Seven Heavenly Virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Justice, Temperance, Prudence.
- The Declaration of Innocence: written in the Kemetic Book of the Dead, these virtues of Ma’at include honesty, chastity, temperance, and fairness.
- The Seven Bushido Virtues: Right decisions, Valor, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor, and Loyalty.
Acknowledge the Sacrifice of Your Followers
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
Great leaders verbalize and affirm the effort put forth by their followers. This is so important! You absolutely must acknowledge the service and sacrifice of your followers! People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. As a leader, you are a servant of those that follow you – not the other way around.
Not only should you acknowledge the sacrifice of your followers, you must become personally acquainted with each of them. You must know their problems, what they are struggling with, recognize their individual differences, and share in their joys and sorrows. Only by understanding and acknowledging them will you be able to lead them – especially when times get tough.
Don’t try to act like a psychiatrist by trying to solve the problems of your people, but you should share the problem, offer suggestions, and try to direct them in the right direction.
Accept Reality and Acknowledge Wrongdoing
“One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
Dr. King faced the ugly truth about the condition of Black men and women 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation Negroes at the time wanted to stick their head in the sand and pretend that things “weren’t that bad”.
For leaders within the Black Conscious communities, we must be able to stand up and acknowledge injustice and wrongdoing – in both big ways and small ways. Do you intervene when you hear children spewing profanity in public? Do you speak out against racism in the workplace? Do you call out fake “community leaders”?
The ability to do so is the very definition of courage: that which enables recognition and fear of danger or criticism, while still allowing calm and firm action. It exists in a moral, as well as physical sense. Moral courage means knowing what is right and standing up for it in the face of popular disfavor. Physical courage is braving mortal danger in support of ones mission or ideals. Dr. King suffered dozens of injuries and ostracism from members of the Black bourgeois leadership in pursuit of his dream, and yet he had the courage to persist.
If not, you are failing to acknowledge wrongdoing, you lack courage as a leader. If your followers cant trust you to stand up against behavior that you say you oppose, then they cant trust your leadership and will follow someone who has the courage to do so.
Apply these lessons to the leadership of your family, your church, your workplace, or your organization. And whether you agree with the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr, learn from his example and take some time today to honor the man.