Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Impact of Inspired Leadership

Making lasting change in the world means staying true to deeply-held principles.

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Posted in , Jan 12, 2018

Martin Luther King Jr.

To celebrate the life and legacy of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m reflecting on the word “leader” in that descriptive moniker.  While King was unquestionably a brilliant thinker, an expert speaker and a great many other things, it’s his skilled leadership that enabled his message to translate from a man to a movement to a monument—both literal in the stone edifice that stands in Washington, DC, and figurative in the form of civil rights laws that were born from his steadfast work. 

Whether or not you aspire to leadership on a grand stage, each one of us walks a positive path when we lead others by example, inspiration and commitment to our most deeply-held values. Here are three aspects of Dr. King’s leadership that stand out to me:

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1)  Listen and Learn
Martin Luther King wrote, taught, advocated from a position of having read, listened to, and been inspired by others. In addition to his theological training, which informed so much of his view on justice, King was drawn to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the activist who led the movement for Indian independence from British rule. King called Gandhi “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” Because King was open to learning from the experiences and philosophies of those who came before him, his own leadership was only strengthened. 

2)  Think Long-Term
Dr. King knew that his views provoked ire and even hatred in too many people to contemplate. In the famous speech delivered at a Memphis church the night before his assassination, he directly addressed the possibility he would be killed for his cause. Invoking the image of Moses, he said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” Inspired leaders are motivated to lay the foundation today for a future they believe in strongly enough to fight for over the long term.

3)  Fear Not
Martin Luther King acknowledged the reality of fear, and he encouraged people to honestly confront the fears that block their emotional, spiritual and political growth. The image of Dr. King’s seeming fearlessness in the face of arrests, beatings and, ultimately, assassination, models how an inspired leader acknowledges fearful things but finds the courage to respond with love and righteousness. King’s sermon, titled “Antidotes for Fear,” begins with a citation of the Bible verse 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love.” King comments, “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.”

What inspires you about Martin Luther King’s leadership?

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