Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.
On the third Monday in January, the United States holds a federal holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and, more important, to honor his immense contributions to this country’s civil rights movement.
Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and an expert on leadership, took time ahead of the holiday to reflect on Dr. King’s lasting legacy and to discuss his case “Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Young Minister Confronts the Challenges of Montgomery.”
What compelled you to write this case?
Bill George: I went to college in the early 1960s in Atlanta, where Dr. King lived and had grown up. This was during the height of the civil rights movement he was leading, his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the marches on Washington and in Alabama. King’s legacy of staying true to your beliefs, pursuing your purpose, and exhibiting courage under pressure are profound lessons for leaders in all walks of life.
How do you teach it?
BG: The most powerful moment in the case – and perhaps in Dr. King’s life – occurs in 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama. He was a young preacher with his first parish, and he was chosen at a town meeting one night to lead the protests against racial discrimination. It was a role he neither sought nor was prepared for, since his whole education to that point (including obtaining his doctorate from Boston University) had focused on a scholarly approach to religion aimed at becoming senior minister at his father’s large church in Atlanta. But he could not ignore this new calling.
Traumatized by his predicament, King gets down on his knees and prays for guidance. This is King’s crucible, something that presages all that lies ahead. It represents the turning point in his life. As we all know by now, he decides to accept the call to lead the fledgling civil rights movement. From this point forward, events lead inexorably not only to Memphis and his tragic assassination, but also enormous progress toward racial equality in the United States.
While perhaps not as dramatic as King’s, all of us experience crucibles. It is important that we understand their meaning for our lives, and how they shape our future direction. The key to coping with your crucible is to reframe it in terms of a learning experience and an opportunity for personal growth that will prepare you to deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
Looking back at Dr. King’s legacy, what are some of the most applicable lessons for leaders today?
BG: The most important lesson that all leaders can draw from Dr. King is to recognize how you can make a difference in the world through your leadership, and then to step up to the challenge when opportunities present themselves. When you do so, undoubtedly you will encounter roadblocks and opposition. That’s when it becomes imperative to have the courage and resilience to persevere in order to fulfill your mission. In a very real sense, the character you demonstrate in achieving your purpose is the legacy you leave to those leaders coming along behind you.
“IN A VERY REAL SENSE, THE CHARACTER YOU DEMONSTRATE IN ACHIEVING YOUR PURPOSE IS THE LEGACY YOU LEAVE TO THOSE LEADERS COMING ALONG BEHIND YOU.”
Education laid the foundation for many of Dr. King’s great ideas. How important was that in terms of his leadership and his development of innovative approaches to difficult problems?
BG: Unlike many other civil rights leaders of his era, Dr. King was a scholar who not only pursued depth in his religious studies, but became a student of Gandhi and his approaches to non-violent civil disobedience. Gandhi’s philosophies form the heart of King’s non-violent marches on behalf of racial equality. In its time this was a highly innovative approach to challenging racial discrimination in the American South.
Coretta Scott King is an important figure in this case. Can you talk about her role in Dr. King’s success?
BG: Coretta Scott King was an incredibly strong woman who was at Dr. King’s side throughout his challenging civil rights protests. She knew the dangers he faced and feared for his loss as a husband and father. Yet she was supportive and faithful throughout his ordeals until the very end. After his death, she did her best to further his mission, which was truly their mission, and to carry on his legacy.
One of the issues that I intentionally chose to leave out of the case is King’s relationships with other women – something that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover kept files and photos of and for which King has been criticized. While King’s lack of fidelity to Coretta does not diminish him and his legacy, it was clearly one of his greatest weaknesses. On the other hand, I think this illustrates that all leaders are imperfect. We should not excuse their failings, but those shortcomings should not cause us to lose sight of their accomplishments and the greater good that they do.
This article was originally posted to HBS.org on 1/15/16