#037: 8 Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr. [Podcast]

On the third Monday of each January in the U.S., we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As you know, he was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.


Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/jcarillet

Dr. King was an eloquent preacher and gave a famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” that defined the aspirations of that movement, not only for his generation but for generations to come.

I think it is particularly appropriate, in view of the upcoming holiday, to devote a podcast episode to the this speech. I urge you to take time to watch this speech and experience what Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is all about.

While the speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric—one of the top ten best speeches ever given, in my opinion—I believe it also provides eight key insights into what it takes to be a truly great leader.

Click to Listen


  • Insight 1: Great leaders do not sugar-coat reality.
  • Insight 2: Great leaders engage the heart.
  • Insight 3: Great leaders refuse to accept the status quo.
  • Insight 4: Great leaders create a sense of urgency.
  • Insight 5: Great leaders call people to act in accord with their highest values.
  • Insight 6: Great leaders refuse to settle.
  • Insight 7: Great leaders acknowledge the sacrifice of their followers.
  • Insight 8: Great leaders paint a vivid picture of a better tomorrow.

Listener Questions

  1. Alex Barker asked, “What do you think Dr. King would want to teach us if he were alive today?”
  2. Christopher Scott asked, “How do you cast vision for volunteers?”
  3. Cor Chmieleski asked, “How do you pursue a vision undeterred while remaining receptive to the input of those you are leading?
  4. Kim Goad asked, “What if you are fresh out of a vision and need inspiration?”
  5. Matthew Green “How important do you think it is for leaders to work on character, integrity, and discipline—something that no one may ever see?”
  6. Phil Mershon asked “How can you lead team members to perform at their best without micro-managing them
  7. Rob Still asked, “What does Dr. King have to teach us about overcoming discouragement, especially when our ideas are rejected by those in power and authority”

Special Announcements

  1. On Thursday, January 17, we will be opening the membership to Platform University. This is a project I and my team have been working on for months.

    My book, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, only scratched the surface. Platform University is going to pick up where that left off and dive deeper, bringing you the insights and tools you need to build a platform that gets you, your brand, your cause noticed.

    I strongly encourage you to visit Platformuniversity.com to learn more. We have already posted two videos that will give you some important background and a sense of what is to come. And tomorrow, we will be posting the third video there that explains it all.

  2. We still have a few tickets left for the Platform Conference, which will be held here in Nashville on February 11–13, 2013—just about a month away. This conference is for anyone who wants to jump start their platform or take it to the next level.

    If you are an author, public speaker, blogger, recording artist, business owner, entrepreneur, sales person, mortgage broker, pastor, or corporate brand manager, this conference is for you!

  3. My next podcast will be on the topic of “taking control of your inner story.” If you have a question on this subject, please leave me a voicemail message. This is a terrific way to cross-promote YOUR blog or website, because I will link to it, just like I did with the callers in this episode.

Episode Resources

In this episode I mentioned several resources, including:

Show Transcript

You can download a complete, word-for-word transcript of this episode here, courtesy of Ginger Schell, a professional transcriptionist, who handles all my transcription needs.

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Also, if you enjoyed the show, please rate it on iTunes and write a brief review. That would help tremendously in getting the word out! Thanks.

Question: What do you appreciate about Martin Luther King’s leadership? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • http://elisafreschi.blogspot.com/ elisa freschi

    Sorry for being a fault-finder, but please emend: Dr. King He was an eloquent preacher—»Dr. King was an eloquent preacher

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for that catch. I changed it at the last minute and forgot to edit the “He” out. All fixed now. Thanks again.

  • http://srjf.blogspot.com/ Simon Fogg

    Good to see urgency listed!

    “Establishing a Sense of Urgency” is the 1st stage in John P. Kotter’s 8 Stage Change Process documented in his profoundly helpful (and classic on the subject of leadership) book “Leading Change” (http://www.amazon.com/Leading-Change-John-P-Kotter/dp/0875847471) which he then expanded upon in “A Sense Of Urgency” (http://www.amazon.com/Sense-Urgency-John-P-Kotter/dp/1422179710/ref=la_B001H6NM1K_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1358339421&sr=1-4).

    • Scott Priestley

      Thank you Simon! My first ever reply back to this blog was going to be “What’s the best way to create a sense of urgency?” By that I mean an authentic sense of urgency. I am a project manager and I have seen executives try to “create” a sense of urgency that was manufactured and everyone knew it – but they also knew that if they didnt play along there would be consequences – its the old “Emperors New Clothes” syndrome. I’ll check out both of those bookd – Kotter is someone I’ve read and really respect as a Management scholar.

  • http://twitter.com/YieldedWalk Wilfred Graves

    What I like about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is that he was a preacher, a practitioner and a peacemaker.  I elaborate on these ideas in the “Daily Inspiration” section of my website for January 15, 2013.  View my longer tribute at http://www.wilfredgraves.com/inspiration.php.

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    As a public speaking professor I show the “I Have a Dream” speech to my students every quarter.  The strength of Dr. King’s words get stronger every time I see the speech.  His words and quotes in general continue to have new relevance as time passes. 

  • Suzanne de Cornelia

    I loved Richard Greene’s “Words That Shook the World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events”–that included his analysis of individual speeches alongside the original text–and CDs with the original speeches.

    Until reading his fantastic book I didn’t know that MLK Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was extemporaneous. He’d written it out, but then decided that AM to speak from the heart. Greene said it was the #1 best speech of the last 100 years. 

    MLK, JFK, RFK…were authentically stirring speakers who tried to unite people with a vision of a better world. 

    Tremendous tribute and post. Thank you.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I had no idea it was extemporaneous. Wow. That makes it even more awe-inspiring. Thanks for sharing that tid-bit.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Thanks for recommending Greene’s book, Suzanne. I’m searching for it now.

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    Great episode about an amazing man, a great example of being a leader during a time that is hard for me to understand. The speech is great (thank you for the links), it inspires and gives me hope, even today. 

  • http://srjf.blogspot.com/ Simon Fogg

    Also reminded me of Nancy Duarte’s iBook edition of “Resonate” see http://blog.duarte.com/2012/04/resonate-is-hot-off-the-ibook-presses which includes an analysis of a number of speeches including MLK’s. See video @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l39CL0t-jyM.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Nancy’s book is must-reading for any speaker.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      I was just getting ready to post a link to her video analysis. It’s excellent. Thanks, Simon.

  • http://gauraw.com/ Kumar Gauraw


    This is an incredible podcast podcast filled with nuggets of wisdom. Thank you for posting. However, I’ve some reservations on the way the first lesson is quoted, “Great leaders do not sugar-coat reality.”

    While it’s true that great leaders are courageous to face their fears, recognize and express the reality, they not necessarily state the truths in “AS IS” to hurt the feelings of others. Dr. King was speaking from stage in his talk and therefore he could state the way he did as he wasn’t speaking to ‘a particular individual’. But, to build and maintain good & healthy relationships, it is important to apply some people skills while dealing at individual levels.

    Overall, it is an incredible post and I really enjoyed it very much!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Kumar. Point well-taken. I appreciate your feedback.

  • http://www.justcor.com/ Cor Chmieleski

    Thanks for answering listener questions, Michael! And “thanks” to your entire pit crew that is helping you produce these HQ resources. I appreciate all of you!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Cor. I appreciated your question!

  • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

    I was reading JD Meier’s blog this week, Sources of Insight (found it through his guest post here), and he talked about having a one-liner for your vision. “I have a dream” is just that isn’t it, pouring a lot of vision into 4 words! I often undervalue this kind of simplicity, but it’s so powerful, especially if you’re willing to champion it. Thanks again – fantastic podcast.

    • Jim Martin

      Aaron, you make a good point regarding the value of simplicity.  I think you are right.

  • http://twitter.com/ScribeLifeGames Corey and Christina

    Great leaders promote a sense of urgency – this is something I haven’t thought of before. Now I will be thinking of it the rest of the day :)

    • Jim Martin

      It seemed to me also that this was a very important point.   Many of us have seen leaders who seemed to feel no sense of urgency or passion about what was at stake. 

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  • http://www.robstill.com Rob Still

    Great podcast Michael, I love how your insights cut to the heart of the matter. Thanks for including my question, loved your answer “perseverance”. I have a song inspired by MLK and posted a blog about that today. http://www.robstill.com/song-never-alone-a-lesson-in-perseverence-from-martin-luther-king-jr/ Thanks again! 

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for that post, Rob. And thanks for the shout-out!

  • Cathy

     look-up Michael Hyatt’s business advice almost everyday since I have begun the work of building my own platform. [Not much of mine is visible; it is still mostly foundational. I am kicking in my facebook page as a pre-blog practice and a quick marketing complement to my recently released, children’s picture book, “Hero Report”. Through your guidance in platform building I have BEGUN. My plan is to have the platform highly functional before the next book is released.

    First I am laying extensive goal and achievement strategies. Thanks to your teachings, book and programs (along with Jeff Goins and others) ideas that once oppressed my mind like a heavy tangled mess of a mountain have begun to transform into a MAP up that mountain. 

    In this post I also learned that you and I have something else in common we are white Americans with – black American grandsons – the experience puts an exclamation mark on concerns about ongoing issues of racism. The strengthen and weakness present in our collective composition at the ‘table of justice’, (Dr. King speaks of in his dream), can be seen in the lives of those across directly our dinner tables.  I am sure you will agree that ‘we the people’ all have more work to do’ in this regard. 
    Thank YOU Michael Hyatt for building a platform so that others may build theirs.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Cathy. I appreciate this comment.

  • Isokari francis ololo

    Michael, just to commend you.  The podcast was wonderfully though out and executed.  A good thinking and execution initiative.  Very well challenged and may God use you in greater services.

    Isokari Francis Ololo 

  • http://toomanymeds.com/ Alex Barker

    Thanks for answering my question Michael! I didn’t mean to put you on the spot as an expert. I thought you had some insight into his leadership, and I was right!
    Great podcast

  • David

    This was a masterful podcast.  Well done!  I wholeheartedly agree that keeping the vision in front of those you lead is extremely important.  But again – taking a speak like this and drawing insights out of it… brilliant work.  I loved this tribute to such an important figure in hour history.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, David. I appreciate your kind words!

    • Jim Martin

      David, I also thought this podcast was very well done.  I thought Michael made some great points.  The podcast seemed particularly effective as included clips of the speech.

  • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

    “I Have a Dream” is an amazing speech indeed. I had it posted in my kitchen for many years, but then I got a new roommate and she removed it  (along with all the other items I had on display, such as the Gettysburg Address, the Prayer of St Francis, as well as several pictures of pretty fashion models torn from various magazines) because she preferred the walls to be “clean” and “uncluttered.” Dr King and my girls, alas, had to go. 

    Now, at time 4:48 of this podcast you ask the following: 

    “What are the most brutal facts of your current reality, the things that need changed?”

    At first first blush, this sounds like a grammatical slip of the tongue. However, I seem to recall having read somewhere that this actually happens to be Pittsburgh dialect, where people will say stuff like “Your hair needs washed!” 

    I’ve always been wondering, since I fail to detect any trace of “Southern” in your speech, are you a native Tennessean, or are you an “immigrant” to the South?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I have lived in the south since I was fifteen. I lived in Nebraska prior to that. Thanks.

      • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

        Makes sense. On Wikipedia it says that the need/want/like + past participle construction (“the bulb needs changed”, “the cat wants petted”) is found “predominantly in the North Midland region,” the “North Midland Region” being defined as an area which extends from Western Pennsylvania to Nebraska.

  • http://www.strategicplanningforgrowth.co.uk/ Jane Bromley

    Really excellent Michael. Thanks so much. He really is an incredible example of a great leader. 
    One of the things I noticed is how every sentence is packed with analogies- I wish I could do that…..
    By the way who are the other 9 of your top 10 leaders? (Did I miss that list somewhere?)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      No, I have not compiled a list. Maybe I will do that.

  • http://www.latarahamying.com/ LaTara Ham-Ying

    What I loved and admired most about Dr. King was the fact that he was obedient! That obedience led him places he may not have wanted to go and yet he went. It took him places where lives were changed, souls were saved, and people believed that YES THEY COULD! I always get goosebumps when I think of him and all he did! 

  • Monica Carter Tagore

    We can always learn something from Dr. King’s work, no matter how often we read or hear it. I got many new insights listening to your podcast about this quite familiar speech. 

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  • http://christopherbattles.net/ Christopher Battles

    It was good to hear his speech broken down. 
    I like your answer to volunteers.  
    It really is good to go back and look at the person/what they did.  There is a reason why holidays were made, to reflect.
    Thank you Sir. 

  • Josh Burnett

    Going along with Insight 3 and 6, I appreciate his perseverance.  You can tell he lived out verses like Hebrews 10:36. “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” 

  • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

    This is one of your best podcasts, Michael. Its inspired me to stop making excuses for the “unfixed” personal leadership items in my life, so thank you!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Dale. I really appreciate that.

      • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

        You’re welcome sir.

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  • http://www.pmhut.com/ PM Hut

    Hi Michael,

    about the insights – I remember when I was a IT manager in a telecom company somewhere in West Africa, a lightning hit the main operation tower and the whole network was down for 2 days. I immediately called the regional manager telling him about the problem (I couldn’t breathe), his answer was: “There are bigger problems than this one”.

    I remembered that leader when I read the insights above, and mostly insight #8.

  • http://www.douglasoakes.com/ Douglas Oakes

    Michael, since discovering your work in October I have been extremely blessed by a number of your podcasts & posts.  This may be my favorite so far.  I was very encouraged by your teaching…and very excited to be able to start my work day off by listening once again to the salient points of one of the greatest speeches ever given.  Thank you!

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  • Curt Erb

    Thank you Michael for commenting on integrity and character. Without in any way diminishing his phenomenal impact, what can we learn from Dr. King’s moral failures and how can we defend the gains made when this is brought up to discredit him?