Lessons in Leadership

This week we celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who dedicated his all-too-short time on Earth to fighting social and civil injustice. More than fifty years after his untimely death, Dr. King is still regarded as one of the most influential leaders in the history of the United States. On Monday, social media was flooded with quotes by Dr. King encouraging humanity, optimism, and action. Inspired by his legacy, people all across the country practiced days of service, attended ceremonies of remembrance, and marched to ensure the freedoms he stood for persist.

Many have written about the leadership qualities demonstrated by Dr. King. This list of attributes is long, but the following stand out to me:

Vision: Dr. King saw the world as it could be, not just as it was, and he consistently communicated what he believed possible.

Humanity: The words love and forgiveness appear frequently in Dr. King’s speeches. He empathized with his fellow man and spent time with people from a variety of backgrounds trying to understand differing viewpoints and motivations.

Discomfort: One need only look at photos of the time to see the potential danger faced by Dr. King. While fighting for what he believed in, Dr. King was subjected to verbal abuse, put in jail, and his home was bombed.

Commitment: Dr. King’s commitment to the civil rights movement began long before he became famous. Starting as a young college student and minister, he advocated for the rights of the disenfranchised and spoke more than 2,500 times on the topic in his lifetime.

What becomes apparent, after reviewing this list, is that leadership is active. Dr. King showed us that leadership is not a position or a title. It is not about being popular or having a large following. Leadership is having a vision to which you are committed, and taking steps to make it a reality. Leadership is doing things that may, at times, make you uncomfortable. Leadership is acknowledging basic human emotions and conditioning, and making an effort to bring out the best in people. Each and every one of us has the potential to be a leader. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

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