Leadership Lessons From Martin Luther King

Yesterday was the first day I was able to track visitors for my new blog site.  Anyone who maintains a serious website knows that this is a critical feature.  What’s interesting after taking a quick look at the numbers is that nearly 25% my hits came from outside the US.  While I usually get a pretty good percentage of my hits from all across the world, this was a bit higher than usual, highlighting how global the world continues to become.

But bigger than the “international” reach of my blog is that our entire society today has become completely global, and that today’s leaders, unlike those of yesteryear, face new issues and challenges as a result. Rather than focusing on operational tasks such as locating employees in other countries or using technology to build things more efficiently, today’s leaders are now faced with more complex challenges. They must learn how to communicate effectively across continents. They have to keep tabs on people, teams, units, and regions, many of which they may not see for months. And they are challenged to bring everyone on the same page to work together to achieve results.

What a challenge ! How can you unite employees and teams to come together from all the way across the globe when you’re not even there?  And how can executives ensure that their people share a common purpose rather than feel isolated and void of impact?  As a start, I think we can learn a few lessons about unity by looking at Martin Luther King, which is especially relevant now given the presence of MLK day.

MLK was one of the best uniters in history. Not only was he focused on his mission to bring equality to our society, but he also worked across all lines of diversity and brought thousands of people together to do so.  But, unlike many leaders today, he did it without the help of technology, in an age where globalization was yet to be accepted, and in one of the most violent eras in history.  I’ll offer a few reasons, from my own perspective, that may have made him successful.

1. MLK led because he had a powerful vision. The great proverb says “Where there is no vision the people perish.” MLK took one of the great issues of the time, and was able to relate deeply to the issue, articulate his vision about the issue to others, and rally everyone around him to feel the same way.  MLK tapped into hearts and spirits of a people and opened their minds to share his vision too.

2.  MLK was also an effective leader during tough times.  In the 1960s, social integration probably seemed nothing more than a fairy tale. It was an environment of heightened intolerance and injustice, and one where people of color often felt like they were left powerless and had no options. Yet King still displayed courage on his mission.  And what’s most impressive is that he did this not only in the face of uncertainty, but also in the face of death from his enemies as well as in the face of disloyalty from those on his own side. And he was still effective.

3. MLK also stressed long-term solutions and kept his eye on the larger prize.  Even when his actions did not bring immediate results or did not give him  instant satisfaction, MLK kept in mind that change meant a better life for his children and his grandchildren. And while some people may have characterized MLK’s ideas as crazy, not immediate enough, and not possible, that’s not anyone’s view today.  MLK’s long-term dreams have clearly initiated change in the minds and hearts of most everyone today.

4.  And finally, King showed us that the best leaders are those who build consensus and want to make things better for everyone.  As a leader, King did not dedicate his life for his personal cause, but instead he worked to improve entire communities … communities that were disparate, that were already engaged in their own fights for civil freedom, and that had different backgrounds, cultures, and geographies. He fought to give everyone a seat at the table, and today, it’s not just the African Americans who benefit from his leadership. But people from all around America and the world see the benefits.

And so leaders today can look at MLK, as they hope and strive to bring about unity and diversity. Though they should be careful not to use the word “diversity” too loosely.  Dr. King fought for diversity because he believed that having equality and justice as well as multiple perspectives were critical to our society, not because it was a fad.  And forty years later, it’s clear that he was right.

So for a moment, let’s all take time to commemorate the impact that King and so many others have had on the American community.  Furthermore, we should also understand that to improve our society going forward, it’s imperative that we also continue to increase the diversity in our schools, workplaces, communities, and our ways of thinking. Only then will be ready to take up after King and continue our march into the society he once envisioned. And only then can we get everyone around the globe to work together to achieve new results. And only then, can we really start our recovery from 2009’s economic crisis.  And only then, will society be able to reach it’s full potential for change.

Please click on the links below to read two good posts about MLK. One is from music star John Legend (on education) and the other from HBS professor Rosabeth Kanter (on leadership)

John Legend (Celebrity) writes about MLK and Education
Rosabeth Kanter (HBS Professor) writes about MLK and Leadership

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Tuesday, January 19th, 2010 Diversity, Leadership 2 Comments

Thanksgiving Weekend

Hey everyone, I hope you all were able to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday. Personally, I’ve always loved Thanksgiving weekend. Not only is it a great day to indulge a bit in some of your favorite dishes, drinks, and desserts, but more importantly it’s also an opportunity for many of us to see our families, friends, classmates, and significant others to reflect on the past year and spend a moment or two thinking about being thankful. For some of us students, it may seem like it’s a bit more difficult be thankful for with the current unemployment rates, deferrals being handed out by firms, and final exams lingering, but the mere fact that you’re sitting on a computer reading my page, aside from all the basic things like having a good meal, suggests that we have a lot to be thankful for. Definitely something to think about for students as grades and recruiting results play out over the next few weeks, for applicants as you start to hear back from graduate school programs that you’ve been dying to get into, and for everyone else as you’re trying survive these odd economic times.

While the Thanksgiving holiday brought a nice long weekend getaways for many folks out there, here in law school some (though not all) of my classmates decided to stay local, given that we’ll all be going home in just a couple of weeks after finals anyhow. Many of the folks here had small gatherings near campus. Some went out to the suburbs to visit friends from Chicago or to see family there. Other folks who typically don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, just had a normal day of relaxing and studying.

As for me, this year, I spent the weekend here in Chicago, given that finals begin fairly soon. My thought was that taking 3 or 4 days completely off would be a bit imprudent, especially considering that I don’t tend to get much done when I head home for holiday breaks, and that a good number of friends would be around in Chicago anyhow. So on my Thanksgiving, I actually did a lot of reading yesterday afternoon, had dinner with an old college buddy and his family just outside the city, and capped off the night by spending some quality time chatting with a friend afterward. I plan to use the rest of the weekend to do some reading, outlining, and studying.

It’s hard to believe but next week will be the last week of classes in my first semester of law school. It’s funny how fast it feels time is going by here. Most people here are ready for the semester to be over, but I suspect the next three weeks will feel really long, perhaps just as long as the first twelve weeks felt. In fact, I like to think of it like running a mile marathon. And just because you’ve run 23 of the 26 miles already, doesn’t mean you can just take off and sprint the last 3 miles. Even the fastest runner still has to pace himself and manage his energy, so that he can finish as strong as possible. But either way, should be a pretty interesting process to through my first law school exam period, and probably a lot of fun that night once we all finish. But for now, time to get back to the books.

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Friday, November 27th, 2009 Uncategorized No Comments

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.


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The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect the views or position of Kellogg, Northwestern Law, the JD-MBA program, or any firm that I work for. I only offer my own perspective on all issues.
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