Leadership Lessons from a King


This past Monday was the 25th federal observance of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As I paused to reflect on his contributions to the shaping of our nation I realized there are leadership lessons from his life that are relevant in corporations and all organizations today.

If you ask one hundred different people what leadership is you may get one hundred different answers.  However, a recent poll of corporate middle managers listed setting an example, values, and vision, as crucial characteristics of an effective leader. Although Dr. King co founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he never intended to lead the movement.  He was actually surprised when his fellow founders elected him to lead their organization and the civil rights movement.  King was just doing what he would do naturally working diligently, organizing, and fighting small human rights battles, not realizing that his leadership skills were being observed and he would be the one the people would rally around.  This is just one example of leading by example.  Part of his fight was for employment and educational equality. He set the standards high by securing a B. A. from Morehouse College, with honors in three years, and a PhD. from Boston University.  I once worked with a manager that gave off disinterested, negative vibes, and could not understand why he received disinterested, negative feedback.  The law of reciprocity set in.  He received exactly what he gave off.

Having values doesn’t mean a leader is expected to be perfect but having values that your followers respect is essential.  Actually, perfection may have the opposite affect.  People may not follow a manager that gives the image of being perfect, always right, and unyielding. A leader must be strong on principle, but flexible on technique. In my book, “Leadership the Book: Lessons Learned through the Eyes of a Child,” I write about an incident when Dr. King’s house was bombed while his family was at home sleeping.  Immediately, hundreds of his followers gathered at his home ready to seek out the perpetrators.  He used his oratory skills to calm the crowd and discourage them from resorting to violence.  Could you imagine the pressure to resort to violence?  King was a father and a husband with a scared wife and children.  No parent wants to hear their children cry or live in fear, yet he maintained his values. He used sit ins, marches, and negotiations, but never resulted to violence.  If all corporate leaders today were this unyielding on principle, corporations would have saved billions in fines.

Without exception, everyone surveyed agreed that vision was a characteristic of a leader.  When Dr. King led the “March on Washington,” he delivered his famous I have a dream speech.  He clearly described the direction he wanted to take the movement.  His message resonated so well that forty-eight years later people are still working toward that vision.  His vision withstood the litmus test of value and all inclusiveness. A true leader can spark people into action regardless of title.  King led over 250,000 people to Washington that did not have to attend, several of which did not have adequate transportation, or residual income. Corporations need leaders at every level.  They need people that do not have a management title to be positive visionaries when change comes about and employees don’t like it. Someone has to be strong enough to be that positive voice when everyone else is grumbling.

King is the only U. S. citizen that has never served as president to have a national holiday in his honor.  Leadership is hard to define. Most people can’t tell you what it is, but they know when they see it.

Dion Harding is a speaker and sales trainer.