Eight Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. On this day we celebrate the life and work of one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. I want to take a few minutes and reflect on what is commonly referred to as his “I Have a Dream” speech.

My wife, Gail, and I watched the speech again on Saturday. It’s less than eighteen minutes long. However, it is profoundly moving. By the end of it, we were both in tears. I urge you to take time on this day to watch this speech and experience what this commemoration is all about.

While the speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric, I believe it also provides eight insights into what it takes to be a truly great leader. (You can read the full transcript here.)

  1. Great leaders do not sugar-coat reality. This speech came at a critical point in the civil rights movement. Dr. King did not pull any punches. He faced the most brutal facts of his current reality. Referring to Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, he acknowledged,

    But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

  2. Great leaders engage the heart. While logic may compel the mind, stories and metaphors move the heart. This is the difference between offering information and inspiration. To cite but one example in the speech, Dr. King states

    In a sense we have 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. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

  3. Great leaders refuse to accept the status quo. In fact, I would say that this is the defining characteristic of real leaders. They are not passive; they are active. They are unwilling to acquiesce to their circumstances. Dr. King continues:

    But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

  4. Great leaders create a sense of urgency. They are impatient—in a good way. They refuse to just sit by and let things take their natural course. They have a sense of urgency and communicate it. Dr. King says,

    We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

  5. Great leaders call people to act in accord with their highest values. It would be easy for the civil rights movement to change tactics and resort to violence. Some did. However, like Nelson Mandela did when he became president of South Africa, Dr. King called his people to a higher standard:

    But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

  6. Great leaders refuse to settle. It would have been easy for Dr. King to negotiate a compromise, to settle for less than his vision demanded. But he was stubborn—in a good sense. He persisted, and his called his followers to persevere:

    There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

  7. Great leaders acknowledge the sacrifice of their followers. They notice the effort their people have expended. They verbalize and affirm it:

    I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”

  8. Great leaders paint a vivid picture of a better tomorrow. Leaders can never, never, never grow weary of articulating their vision. They must be clear and concrete. They have to help their followers see what they see:

    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 the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

    I have a dream that my four little 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 today!

    I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!

    I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

I have only scratched the surface. This speech is full of lessons and deserves careful study. I would encourage you, in the spirit of this holiday, to sit down with your family and watch the entire speech. It is less than eighteen minutes long. It will change forever the way you understand Martin Luther King Day.

Question: What do you appreciate about Martin Luther King’s leadership?
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  • http://www.mightyrasing.com MIghty

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is truly a legend. He has fought for the welfare of Black Americans. but more than that, he has shown courage and amazing leadership in the face of great odds.
    My recent post Twitter Updates for 2010-01-17

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yep. I find him totally inspiring. Mike Glenn, the pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church here in Brentwood, TN (a predominantly white church), said today, “All of us want to preach like Martin Luther King. We don't want to die like he did. The two can't be separated. They are the same sermon. Freedom costs.” I thought that was brilliant.

      • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

        Wow. This quote from Mike Glenn is going on my wall (real wall above my desk, not FB wall… haha)

        • james kidumba


    • Sgmlevy

      Great leaders acknowledge the sacrifice of their followers. They notice the effort their people have expended.

      This was also aupport in his Nobel Prize Speech

      ‘…Every time I take a flight, I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible – the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.
      So you honor the dedicated pilots of our struggle who have sat at the controls as the freedom movement soared into orbit. You honor, once again, Chief Lutuli of South Africa, whose struggles with and for his people, are still met with the most brutal expression of man’s inhumanity to man. You honor the ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth. Most of these people will never make the headline and their names will not appear in Who’s Who. Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvellous age in which we live – men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization – because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.”

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MikeHolmes MikeHolmes

    Mike this is an awesome post! This nearly drove me to tears. Not just the post but the day I had yesterday where I found myself fighting the staus quo. And I woke up this morning wondering if it was really worth it. But after reading this post…I realize now…more than ever it is.

    Most people don't want to say it…but during part of his life Dr. King was a hated man. A hated and despised man. He sacrificed so much that when he died at 39 the autopsy revealed he had the heart of a 60 year old man–because of all the stress he endured.

    But he stands as a constant reminder than any minority in the right can defeat a majority in the wrong.

    Great post!
    My recent post Biblical Marketing, Malcolm Gladwell, and The Tipping Point

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Wow. Your comment really moved me, too. So much of life is just showing up and refusing to quit. Dr. King was certainly that kind of man. It inspires me, too!

  • http://coachherbie.wordpress.com Simon Herbert

    Great post, and incisive comments on a fantastic man. Dr. King's speech is breathtaking in its' message and delivery, but I've always felt that it showed his ultimate vision for the civil rights movement. It wasn't simply a campaign to place the black americans on the same footing as the whites, but was a clear statement on how a united society should respond and grow stronger in itself. When you talk of a compelling vision, Dr. King certainly knew how to cast it!
    My recent post The View From Sunday.

  • http://coachherbie.wordpress.com Simon Herbert

    Great post, and incisive comments on a fantastic man. Dr. King's speech is breathtaking in its' message and delivery, but I've always felt that it showed his ultimate vision for the civil rights movement. It wasn't simply a campaign to place the black americans on the same footing as the whites, but was a clear statement on how a united society should respond and grow stronger in itself. When you talk of a compelling vision, Dr. King certainly knew how to cast it!
    My recent post The View From Sunday.

  • http://www.bradfarris.com Brad Farris

    I think the most defining characteristic of King's leadership is his courage. As you said about Mike Glenn's comment, living the life that he lived insured that he would die the death that he died, but he did it anyway. And he did it not knowing if it would make a difference, but knowing that it had to be done. I keep a poster of him in my office to remind me of the courage that's required to make change of any kind.

    Thanks for the lessons Michael.
    My recent post 2010 Goals: Business

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    Words and ideas are powerful. When painted into a glorious vision of the future, they are unstoppable. This speech along with JFK's, "Man on the moon" speech and Ronald Reagan's, "Tear down this wall" speech show the ultimate power of the spoken word.

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an amazing painter of words that have transcended his life. His vision lives on stronger than ever. He faced unbelievable opposition, yet he had faith in a powerful God. One that spoke through him clearly and with passion on that cloudy day in 1963.
    My recent post Take It Up A Notch

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      While we still have a huge amount of work to do to realize Dr. King’s vision, I rejoice that we can see “garden’s” here and there that demonstrate what is possible. New Hope Academy in Franklin, Tennessee is one such model, where little black boys and black girls are able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. It’s a beautiful and moving thing to behold.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

        I was eight years old in 1963, living in a world drastically different than today. I can remember hearing the speech and thinking as a child how great it would be to live where children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by who they were.

        That dream seemed almost as impossible then as going to the moon, yet God works in amazing ways. Thank God for the courage of leaders like Martin Luther King, who have led us much further down the path to equality.
        My recent post Take It Up A Notch

  • Geoff Webb

    These are great, Mike – as always – thanks.

    The thing that most impresses me about King was his ability to cling to his convictions about non-violence. The current of this world is tricky and always pulling us toward its way of doing things. It's a constant struggle to steer your life on course. Martin Luther King Jr. fought that fight amazingly well – and drew others to him in the process.

    That's what I appreciate most about his leadership.
    My recent post Leading like Martin Luther King Jr

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I got the same thing from Nelson Mandela’s life after he was released from prison and made President of South Africa. Even though he received enormous pressure from his fellow blacks to “return evil for evil,” he resisted and called them to a higher standard.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

    What I appreciate about MLK's leadership, among many amazing things, is that he opened the door for us to reclaim or rekindle the American Dream. Doesn’t matter where we’ve come from… what matters is WHO we are.

    I would add, as inspired by MLK, that great leaders PRACTICE WHAT THEY PREACH. They are examples. They walk the talk as they lead others to walk it too.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/chownage Chownage

    Great observations and insight Mike. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  • http://twitter.com/davebaldwin @davebaldwin

    I was a teenager when Dr. King was assassinated. I don't think I appreciated his legacy until well into adulthood. He was a transformational leader and I do believe we are all better today because of how he led. A transformational leader is one who is as concerned about the well-being of the follower as the goal he/she is moving toward. That's what I appreciate about Dr. King's leadership.
    Thank you for this great post Michael. Our message at LifePoint this weekend was the pride of prejudice. We addressed the biblical view of prejudice — racial, economic, social — and it's root being one of selfish pride. It was an excellent opportunity for good discussions with our African American and Latino brothers and sisters.
    Many Blessings,
    My recent post Sunday Evening Reflections:

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I have a similar story. I don’t think I really appreciate Dr. King until well into my adult years. He was indeed a transformational leader.

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  • http://priorityattitudes.com/ Richard Maybury

    Michael, an excellent post, bringing out important distinctions within this remarkable moment in history. I live in the United Kingdom and every MLK day for a long time now, I have watched the same grainy video images – and before American Rhetoric and Youtube had them posted, I read the transcript. It has always inspired me.

    Your analysis today has -itself- added to my day, for which I thank you,
    My recent post Top 5 tips for success in a telephone job interview

  • Anne

    What a beautiful analysis of the "I Have a Dream" speech. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words are impossibly poetic and beautiful. The two lessons I distilled from his speeches are that we must always remember we have the power to act to effect change in the world and that we must aspire to be a servant of humanity. I wrote about them here:

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Laurinda Laurinda

    “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” & “You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” – two of my favorite quotes from his speech.

    I once heard a pastor say "if you are 1 step in front of the people you are a leader, 2 steps you are a pioneer and 3 steps you are a martyr." MLK, Jr was taken way too soon, but what a legacy he left. The price of being such a visionary and standing your ground is great. Leadership is tough and not too many are willing to pay the price.
    My recent post In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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  • http://twitter.com/kevin_thompson @kevin_thompson

    Tremendous post, Mike, on a tremendous leader. One thing that resonates with me about MLK was his amazing discipline…he never lost steam. His "Letter from a Birmingham jail" is one of the most brilliant examples of the proper way to respond to critics. It's amazing how MLK was able to build an army of people that bought into his vision and carried onward with the mission long after he passed. It's very humbling to study him. And as a former Memphian, I can attest to the sting every year felt by the city when April comes around and we remember that one of our greatest leaders was murdered in our city. It's terrible.

  • http://bondchristian.com/ bondChristian

    "Great leaders engage the heart. While logic may compel the mind, stories and metaphors move the heart."

    That's so important. Often in our zeal for truth, we forget how to communicate it. Being right without being heard benefits no one.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.
    My recent post NOW: The “get rich quick” trick for getting things done

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  • Phyllis Unterschuetz

    Michael, I found your blog when I did a search for information on social networking and immediately became a fan. This is a marvelous post! You have gleaned some valuable kernels of wisdom from Dr. King's speech and shared them in a most lucid and convincing way. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and articulate writing. The ideas you've presented here parallel the points my husband and I are hoping to convey in a book we've just written, "Longing: Stories of Racial Healing," which will be published in May. Our website will be launched very soon; in the meantime you can read more on my facebook fan page.

    Phyllis Unterschuetz

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lindsey_Nobles Lindsey_Nobles

    I just got off the phone with my sister. She took her 3 little ones to the MLK Parade in Raleigh. I love that she is using today as an opportunity to teach her kids about Martin Luther King and the power of a well-articulated dream. I am going to send her here so she can show them the video.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      What an opportunity to teach. I wish I had had this kind of education when I was younger!

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    For several years, I taught this speech to high school freshmen. What I appreciate most about it is the power of the words King chose–he truly was a wonderful wordsmith. His use of metaphors and of the rhythm of wording was outstanding. King was highly intelligent–he graduated from high school at the age of 15 and went straight to college. He could have taken prestigious positions, but chose to work to make America a better place for all. And, with this speech, he created the desire for this to happen within many people.

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  • http://dynamiqueprofesseur.blogspot.com Samuel Ekundayo

    Great Post Michael. I learnt loads from it. The life of Martin Luther King Junior blesses me greatly and stil inspires me so much to believe in my dream. I have no reason to doubt that I'd make it.
    My recent post You are the only You in the World!

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  • Kit@bellsouth.net

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a Republican, he sided mostly with Republican values. He was ever mindful because he did his research/homework concerning the Democrats racist stand against blacks. He was aware that President Kennedy vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 when he was a senator. Finally because his relentless perserverance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was finally passed, but not with the help of the Democratic Party who voted overwhelmingly against it (on public record, check it out). It passed only with Republican support. Just wanted people, especially black people to know that, because we as a people have an unfounded and blind loyalty to the Democratic Party who has for hundreds of years worked above and beyond to hold black people down. As of January 19, 2010, it has not changed, even with a half-black president.

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  • http://wizdom4life.blogspot.com Pamela

    What do you appreciate about Martin Luther King’s leadership?
    I appreciate the boldness and courage that he set forth. His leadership was mentally stimulating versus being violent or using force. He knew his purpose and he made sacrifices to make it happen. His leadership instilled a sense of pride and respect for mankind. ;)

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  • Piwpiw

    sad cases get a life

  • MC

    I find it criminal that EMI has the odacity to deny the public of this awe inspiring speech over what is clearly motivated by money. A copyright claim….really?????  This is a piece of history that should be readily available to anyone that wants to listen to it.  

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I find this appalling, too.

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  • Anonymous

    I really appreciate your piece–and was directed to it by our school superintendent Dave Barry. The way you broke it down into eight “leadership lessons” was insightful and helped me see it in a new light.  I have one significant critique, however–and that is that great leaders call people to justice. This is what Dr. King was doing, what Mandela did, what Tutu does–and I would have loved to see you work that into your piece. This is the challenge for the White Church–we too often shy from it because, as referred to below, discipleship DOES cost–but the call for justice is integral in the Black Church. Echoing Mike Glenn’s comments, a church on the South Side of Chicago (St. Sabina’s) has a banner that people see as they leave that reads: “Discipleship Costs: Are You Willing?” Thanks for reading.

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  • Thomas

    Love you King, always will. :)

  • Guest

    What about all the other african-american activist’s before him and that gave him his name, where is their day?

  • prayernotesbycynthia

    Dr. King was a great preacher, teacher and leader. I enjoy listening to his speeches–the few that are available on YouTube and such. I have created a tribute, also, to Dr. King on my little blog.  All of you are welcome to drop by, if time allows. Blessings!http://prayernotesbycynthia.blogspot.com/

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