Black History Month: 5 Leadership Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King

Whether you are looking for a job, in a position where you have to lead others, or simply looking for ways to manage your career, imaging the traits of a true leader will enhance your career. Martin Luther King Jr, a great leader, who is best known around the world for his human rights activism, and his famous speech “I Have a Dream,” embodies what leadership is about. He was featured as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1963, had an audience with Pope Paul VI and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. King was also a prolific writer, and a strong public speaker – also traits of the greatest leaders. In celebrating Black History Month, and studying Martin Luther King’s life, there are several leadership lessons that we can learn from him.


Leadership Lesson 1Articulate a powerful vision. The greatest leaders have the ability to engage with their hearts. They have a powerful vision, which they share, and lay the path to achieve the vision. Using his charisma and superb oratory skill, Martin Luther King engaged with heart, and shared his vision in his seminal speech, “I Have a Dream.” Over 45 years after his death, his speech is as popular as ever. Because he was able to articulate a powerful vision of racial harmony, King was able to galvanize both blacks and whites to support his cause. As a professional, what is your vision for your career? Can you articulate it?


Leadership Lesson 2: Have people who they admire and look to for guidance or stand on the shoulders of giants. The greatest leaders know that to lead effectively, they must also know how to follow. They have mentors, or at the very least, people who they admire. In 1959, at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, King was able to fulfill his lifelong dream to travel to India. He admired Mahatma Gandhi, and was inspired by his practice of non-violence resistance, which had secured India’s independence from Britain. While in India, he visited Gandhi’s grave, and took the time to learn more about the practice of non-violence. This experience gave King a deeper understanding of nonviolence, and it became a strategy for major social change. He was also influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience. Who are your mentors or people who you admire? What can you learn from them that will assist you professionally?


Leadership Lesson 3: Speak up about things that really matter. Martin Luther King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” King had a sense of duty toward the civil rights movement, and was an active participant and leader to effect change. He believed in the cause so much that he donated the funds that he received from his Nobel Peace Prize to the civil rights movement. When Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested for violating a segregated seating ordinance on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, King led a boycott of the city buses, which lasted for 382 days. At the end of the boycott, some African Americans were hired as bus drivers. King’s leadership is seen in the way he rallied people to participate in the boycott. People carpooled, took taxis, or walked great distances to work and school, as an act of protest, instead of taking the buses. He also organized and led various rallies, sit-ins and freedom rides. All the time, he was focused on non-violent resistance. When you observe an injustice or wrongdoing in the workplace, do you speak-up or keep silent?


Leadership Lesson 4: Involve everyone. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that the only way to effectively promote human rights was to involve everyone in the struggle, not just African Americans. In his speeches, he emphasized that injustice is everyone’s business, and was able to inspire both blacks and whites with his vision of racial harmony. He also worked with other civil rights leaders. As a result, he was able to galvanize thousands of Americans to press for equal human and political rights for all. The non-violent resistance that King led, resulted in the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Do you find ways to be inclusive at work?


Leadership Lesson 5: Feel the fear and do it anyway. Everyone experiences fear at one time or another, and some people are so crippled by fear that they cannot act. The greatest leaders know that experiencing fear is natural, but they do not allow it to prevent them from taking action. Martin Luther King was targeted because of his fight for racial, economic and political justice. When he led a non-violent passive resistance, there were many instances when others responded with violence. His house was bombed, he was arrested on trumped up charges, but he always acted with integrity – even when he was placed in solitary confinement in the Birmingham jail. King admitted that while in solitary confinement he was scared for his life for the first time. Still, he recognized that what he was striving for was too important to allow real fear to prevent him from acting. Do you take calculated risks at work, or do you allow the fear of failure to immobilize you?


Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the greatest heroes of the twentieth century, and anyone, not just those tasked with leading others, can learn leadership lessons from the way he led himself and others.



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