How I reflect every year on MLK day about what it means to be a leader

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How I reflect every year on MLK day about what it means to be a leader

Chief Diversity and Social Impact Officer Antoine Andrews reflects on the messages about leadership in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s final speech.

Antoine Andrews

January 12, 2023 | 6 min read

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Every year, I listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech. On April 3, 1968 Dr. King delivered one of his most memorable and compelling speeches and I always walk away with something new. I am reminded about many core values that drive me to work and show up the way I do every day. 

This year, I am reminded about what it means to be a leader today. Leadership today, regardless of your age, title, industry, or function—profit or nonprofit, public or private company, small team or large team—is about leading with your values and making a mark larger than your company walls. 

Here are just a few of the lessons I learned from his words this year. 

Leadership can happen at any age, and even through legacy. 

“When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”

Dr. King was only 26 years old when he began to lead—but that didn’t stop him from speaking out and challenging the injustices he saw in the world. At the time, it must have felt like an almost insurmountable task to tackle the structuralized racism that dominated that period. Yet Dr. King’s youth, energy, and optimism allowed him to take it on nonetheless. I’m constantly inspired by the young people around me, and thinking about Dr. King’s youth reminds me again of how much they are capable of.

On the flip side of that, you also don’t have to be young to make a difference. I’ve written before about how daunting it can be to contemplate the amount of change that still needs to happen before equity is realized. But, Dr. King’s  legacy continues to this day and  continues to grow in power after his death. There’s something inspiring about that—about knowing that even if you can’t finish your work in one lifetime, you can lay the foundation for even more growth after you’re gone.

Dr. King was a leader in every sense of the word—and his life and words also invite others to see themselves the same way—to imagine themselves standing up and making change, regardless of perceived barriers like age. 

It’s not about what will happen if I act, it’s what will happen if I don’t. 

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. … That’s the question before you tonight. Not, if I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” “If I do no stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.”

That Dr. King lived every word that he preached. In this quote, he talks about the importance of acting proactively, rather than passively stewing about the possible personal consequences of acting selflessly, and he embodied that mindset. There is a major difference between reactive leadership and proactive leadership, and people who practice the latter almost always leave a better world around them. Proactive leaders are thoughtful, forward-thinking, and above all—impactful. I strive to be a proactive leader, and it requires a lot of forethought, confidence, and attention. But people like Dr. King model exactly why it is so important. 

Welcome those willing to collaborate, even the unexpected. 

“Now, we are poor people, individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer than all the nation in the world, with the exception of nine…That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it.”

Dr. King was  willing to collaborate with almost anyone, and that’s because he was so laser focused on his ultimate goal–change. Leaders who want to drive social and business changes have to collaborate cross-functionally and  listen to stakeholders with all kinds of different viewpoints. It can be an exercise in humility to seek the advice of people you don’t see eye-to-eye with, but if you want to make an impact effectively, you have to set aside some of your perspectives and tap into the resources around you.

Also, people can (and often do) surprise you. If you give them the chance, some of your most unexpected collaborators might end up being the most helpful. These are lessons that most people know, but sometimes we need to be reminded to really internalize them. The more you can get people to work with you, the quicker you come to your ultimate goal. The saying is “if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” The statement is the epitome of how Dr. King led the movement.

We have to be willing to recognize and learn from mistakes and the challenging times. 

“I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick… But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding–something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up.” 

We always have to be willing to look unflinchingly into the past—even the hard parts. We have to look at history to understand where we need to go and learn from mistakes. Remembering Dr. King, and his death is painful, but it is an important part of his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faced incredible opposition, unfairness, ugliness, and hate. For all his amazing work, it was a dark part of history, with an even darker past rooted in slavery and racism. But it was only by looking at these moments head-on  that he was able to find the courage to face them and fight them.

Today, we have our own injustices (past and present) to contemplate. There is still so much that is broken in our country and world. Leaders in organizations that want to address these inequities need to do the same thing Dr. King did: study them (and study them again), address them, and work to build a better future.

Sometimes problems might even be mistakes of our own making. It can be painful to recognize those, but doing so is how we grow. I have immense respect for people who can acknowledge that they’ve done something wrong and learned to make amends and change in the future. We need much, much more of that in the business world. 

Dr. King is celebrated by so many today and every day. He is a beacon for those who want to see a better world—and ideally help create it. 

Today we face many challenges—climate change, racial and social equity, world peace. If we focus on what we can achieve in our lifetime alone, we will most likely limit ourselves in what we pursue. However, if we recognize that these large global challenges can be addressed together, that each action, influence, connection, is a stepping stone towards the mountaintop and seeing the other side, we ultimately can get there.  

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