Oftentimes, when we think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and when we honor and remember him, we think of someone who is so gigantic, so enormous in his power and impact, that we could never measure up to be like him. He is held as exceptional – an eloquent orator, gifted statesman, and exceptional writer – someone whose skills were so far superior to ours that he seems to transcend humanity itself – that he is a superstar, in the truest sense of the word.
But there are ways in which we can learn from him and emulate him, and that is in his role as a leader. Dr. King led the largest social justice movement this country has ever seen, and he did so for 13 years! How did he do it? What were his secrets? What can we learn from him? There are four distinct leadership tools that Dr. King utilized.
- He listened. Dr. King was famous for having meeting with the top brass of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where each person would go round and round and discuss their views on how to implement a particular strategy. Oftentimes these discussions resulted in heated debates. King would listen and would often give feedback before reaching a final decision. It was important for him to hear the perspectives of everyone involved. Listening was not only an important leadership trait, but it also showed a great level of trust in his team. Their opinions and thoughts were just as important as his.
- He collaborated. Even though he was in charge of the SCLC, Dr. King worked closely with leaders of other Civil Rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Each group had their own distinct approach to fighting for Civil Rights, but Dr. King worked with each of them to meet the larger, broader objective of securing human rights for African Americans.
- He admitted mistakes. A cursory review of the Civil Rights Movement can make it seem as if every initiative resulted in some success – to a new law or change in policy, despite the dangers or how long it took. But the Albany Movement was one area where Dr. King did not achieve any lasting success. Despite several protests to make changes in Albany, Georgia, Dr. King left without making the changes he desired. He admitted his mistakes, his lack of thorough strategic planning, and assuming that the situation in Albany was the same in other areas. He pivoted his approach to their Birmingham campaign. Too many leaders today are loathe to admit when they are wrong and that they have made mistakes. Social Justice leaders of today can learn from this important lesson.
- He innovated. In Dr. King’s later years, he realized that Civil Rights was not just an issue that affected the south, he began to see that African Americans in the north had problems as well. He began to understand the importance of how economics was tied to social and political rights. And he began to challenge this nation’s military industrial complex with the war in Vietnam, a war where Black and brown soldiers were dying at higher rates relative to their population. All of these areas were avenues of growth and possibility for the SCLC. Sadly, Dr. King was assassinated before he was able to see these ideas through to fruition. Dr. King’s willingness to take the Civil Rights Movement is a lesson for social justice leaders of today to not stay stagnant, to look for areas of change and new avenues where they can make a difference.
Dr. King was an exceptional man and someone we should honor and remember. Even though he is gone, there are still lessons we can learn from him. Dr. King’s leadership style is applicable to all of us, from teachers to government officials, from school children to social justice leaders. This Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, let us do more than remember him – let us learn from him as well.