Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 18, 2010 9:05 AM
"I have a dream" by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of the most famous speeches of recent history. Aspiring leaders study it to see how memorable words that sketch a big, compelling vision can inspire significant change.
But four words are not the measure of the man. There is much more to learn from his actions. King, whose birthday is commemorated by a U.S. federal holiday on the third Monday of each January, delivered that speech during a March on Washington in the summer of 1963. The rally attracted a record-breaking quarter of a million supporters for civil rights and against racial discrimination. It provided impetus for passage of equal rights legislation and the dismantling of formal trapping of segregation.
King was an advocate for disadvantaged African-Americans who had little in common, I guess, with most of those who now examine his speech in business schools and corporate training. Yet King, who was elected president of his predominantly white class in divinity school in Pennsylvania, could reach out to mainstream establishments. The "I have a dream" speech used business analogies. He said, "In a sense, we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir." He went on to say that America had defaulted on this note, giving people of color a "bad check" which came back marked "insufficient funds." Now, he implied, it was time to collect. But while he spoke favorably at times of reparations for slavery, he mostly focused on education, fair wages, and open access, which would benefit all of society.
King felt that racial justice would help everyone achieve his or her potential, because investments in education are the underpinning of civil rights. His dream was that his four children would someday be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. These views gave him moral credibility outside his movement.
To King, a true leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. The civil rights movement, like all social movements, was a jumble of many independent organizations with their own leaders and ambitions. King and his colleagues in his organization were not in charge, but they managed to get many separate groups moving together. A coalition of 6 organizations led the March on Washington, a notable achievement given disagreements over tactics; another, more radical group made fun of the March. King preached moderation and found principles that transcended differences.
King was not a paragon—his doctoral thesis was apparently investigated for plagiarism; there were allegations about his personal life—but the movement did not depend on him alone. Continuing coalition-building ensured room under the big umbrella for many leaders and forms of action. Later, when King shifted to a focus on economic justice, the loose coalition shifted form, and not all organizations trod the same path. But while he was alive and leading, there was a foundation for constructive joint action.
Beliefs worth the risk
King's actions showed the importance of his beliefs. A philosopher King of non-violence, he persisted and persevered through death threats, assaults, and more than 20 arrests. His life was ended by an assassin's bullet in 1968, when he was 38. Even martyred, he was not immediately recognized for his achievements. In 1983, President Reagan signed a bill making King's birthday a federal holiday, but this remained controversial. Not until 2000 was the day celebrated officially in all 50 states.
Unity through service
King called for people to stand in the light of creative altruism rather than the darkness of destructive selfishness. His words were in the tradition of President Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
Today the national service movement has taken up King's and Kennedy's mantle. The government Corporation for National & Community Service and the volunteer Hands-on Network nationwide define MLK Day as a time for service. City Year, a flagship AmeriCorps program on whose national board I serve, organizes service projects in urban schools, bringing the community together to complete the job of equal opportunity through improved education. Major corporations such as Timberland, T-Mobile, Bank of America, PepsiCo, and Comcast sponsor teams and send employees.
Thinking about King can make all of us pause to dream. Here is mine: I have a dream that, one day, leaders will be known not just by what they accomplish for their own organizations but also for the improvements they stimulate in their communities, nations, and the world.