What’s your definition of a great leader? One of my favorites is from Rosalynn Carter who distinguishes a leader from great leader:
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”
Based on that definition and looking back over the past 50 years, I think we can all agree that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great leader. We can learn a lot from Dr. King and his legacy.
You see, one of the key attributes of a great leader is a strong vision. And Dr. King had a vision. A vision for an ideal America, an ideal America that was a far cry from the reality of the day.
If you are old enough to remember the summer of 1963, you will remember that America was not only deeply divided but also racially segregated, by the laws of the day. Dr. King’s vision for people of all races to live, work and play together seemed almost laughable. And 50 years later, while much remains to be done, it seems to me that progress has been made towards achieving his vision.
On Monday, January 21st, we honor Dr. King and his vision for America with a national holiday. Few are more deserving of such an honor. Dr. King is probably most remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered one summer day in 1968 in Washington D.C. In this speech, he painted a picture of his ideal America. He powerfully anchored his vision to well-known documents from our nation’s life and history.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
He continued describing his vision of the future with language that could only be imagined as fantasy that day in 1963, but which has come closer to becoming real as we near the speech’s 56th anniversary:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”
Wow – what a picture! He went on to tie his vision to a bedrock of American patriotism, and to national physical landmarks by quoting the iconic anthem, My Country, Tis of Thee:
“Let freedom ring from the snow capped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
And finally, Dr. King brought everyone together and urged a united front against tyranny and oppression:
“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing, in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
The picture Dr. King painted was poignant and prophetic. His speech was predominantly about the Civil Rights Movement and about equal treatment of blacks. But on that day in our nation’s Capital, almost 25% of the crowd, or 60,000 people, were white. Dr. King transcended color. His memory continues to inspire us – black and white – almost 50 years after his death. He continues to inspire this white businessman – a man who grew up in South Louisiana, went to college at the University of Arkansas and now calls Austin, Texas home – this white businessman, who has a little bit of redneck, Cajun and hillbilly all rolled up into one!
Thank you Dr. King. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your vision. Thank you for standing up for what you believe in. Thank you for preaching and living nonviolence. Thank you for inspiring generations to stand for equality.
You and I don’t have to be world leaders or elected to office to make a positive impact on our little slice of the world. And it doesn’t take a Herculean effort or an act of Congress to make an impact. Simply shift your mind and do what is right.
What is your vision? Where are you leading your business, family, community? Your vision and leadership can change the world. Use your power for good.