Oswald Letter

Lessons on life and leadership from Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLKby Dan Oswald

Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inarguably, he accomplished much during his lifetime, and there certainly are lessons we can learn from his approach to life and leadership.

King was a man who developed a followership that numbered in the hundreds of thousands—if not millions—made up of people compelled to follow his example of nonviolent civil disobedience to bring attention to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. And when he organized the March on Washington in 1963, hundreds of thousands of his followers showed up to participate in the march, where he delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It takes a special person—an incredible leader—to develop the kind of following that King had.

If you study King’s life, there is much you can learn about leadership from his actions, and I encourage you to take time to read about him. He led a fascinating life marked with achievement. But today I thought we would focus on what we can learn from King’s words.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

There are times in life and at work when you’re really flying. You can do no wrong. Everything you touch turns out great, and you’re on top of the world. Flying high might describe this type of situation best. But, unfortunately, it’s not always that way. Sometimes we’re not flying but walking or even crawling.

While crawling certainly isn’t as much fun as flying or even running, King reminds us that even when crawling, the important thing is to move forward. It’s only when we give up that we stop moving toward our goal. Look, crawling isn’t necessarily a dignified position to be in, but if it allows you to continue to move forward and reach your goal, that’s what will be remembered—not how you got there but that you did. Keep moving forward!

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

If you want to understand how King was able to develop the type of following he did, look no further than this quote. We’ve all heard the term “servant leadership.” Well, King had it down to a science. He dedicated his life to helping others, and people would follow him anywhere to help him accomplish his goal.

As managers, we should consider what King calls life’s most urgent question. Every day you have the opportunity to help others. As a manager, you should dedicate your time to making sure the people who work for you feel supported and have what they need to be successful. It’s incredibly rewarding to help others achieve their dreams. You have that opportunity as a manager—just ask yourself each day, “What am I doing for others?”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

I recently wrote about having the courage of your convictions and standing up for what you believe is right. Of course, I was talking about that in the context of work and making sure your voice and ideas are heard. Obviously, King had the courage of his convictions, and he ultimately paid for them with his life. We may not have the opportunity to change the course of a nation as King did, but that doesn’t mean his words don’t apply to us. There are times as a manager when you will have the chance to stand up and do what’s right. Will you do it, or will you stay seated and let the opportunity pass you by? How will you be measured according to the standard set by King?

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

King is telling us that if we want to be leaders, we need to lead—that is, we need to develop ideas and convince others of their merit. A leader doesn’t figure out where everyone is going and then jump to the front of the line. A leader chooses a destination, convinces others of the merits of taking the trip, shows them how they can get there, and then leads them on the journey.

As a manager, it’s your job to have a vision and share it with those with whom you work. And as a leader, you must build consensus for that vision. If you stand around waiting to find consensus, then you’re not leading anyone. The leader is out in front of the pack determining the proper path. At times you’ll head the wrong way and need to reverse course. Other times, as the leader of the pack, you’ll be the first to step into danger. But as a leader, you must be willing to take calculated risks. That’s part of the job description.

There is so much we can learn from the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., that can be applied to our roles as managers. I encourage you to take the time to study his life and learn a little more about a man who was a true leader, dedicated his life to his cause, and paid the ultimate price for what he believed in. Any time you can find leaders who were as successful as King, it’s worth taking the time to discover what made them so successful. Then we might be able to apply a couple of the lessons they taught to our own lives.