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How to Lead Like Martin Luther King

It's pretty easy to do the right thing when the conditions are right. It's not so easy when conditions are very challenging and doing the right thing could result in serious, negative consequences in the short term for us or for our organization.
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Last week, as I reflected on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous speech, it occurred to me that Dr. King is certainly one of the most influential leaders in American history. Have you ever wondered why that is so? Answering this question can help us to be more effective leaders.

There were, of course, numerous factors that contributed to Dr. King becoming the de facto leader of the civil rights movement in America. However, it is clear that the principle cause is the fact that Dr. King was incredibly inspiring. He was able touch people's hearts in a way that few others in history ever have. Fortunately for us, his secrets for inspiring others and moving them to action are traits that we can all emulate. Those traits are inspiring character and the ability to connect people to a purpose far greater than themselves.

Start With Why

Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, is currently one of the most sought-after speakers in the world. His TED talk is currently the second most popular of all time, with more than 12 million views via the TED platforms alone. The reason for all this is that Simon made a very interesting discovery that can have a tremendous impact on the success of any organization.

What Simon discovered is that if you look at all of the most inspiring leaders in history -- whether they were leaders of businesses, governments, or social movements -- they all have something in common. They were all very clear about why they do what they do, which involves some version of serving a purpose greater than ourselves. They were also very effective at communicating their "why" to others. In fact, Simon noticed that the most inspiring leaders all communicate in the same way, which is the exact opposite of how most people communicate.

Most people talk about what they do or what their organization does first. Then they talk about how they do it. But most people never talk about their "why." Conversely, the most inspiring leaders start with "why." Then they talk about how they bring their cause to life. Then they talk about what it is that they do.

Dr. King was a perfect example of this principle in action. As Simon points out in Start With Why, Dr. King did not go around speaking about detailed plans for how to change civil rights in America. Dr. King spoke about his cause, about his beliefs. Dr. King spoke about his vision of a world where all people are treated equally. His most famous speech, given Aug. 28, 1963, has been referred to ever since as "I Have a Dream."

The most basic definition of being a leader is being a person that other people willingly follow. As shown by the example of Dr. King, one of the most powerful things we can do to accomplish this general goal of leadership is to inspire people by connecting their work to an inspiring purpose that is far bigger than ourselves.

Character That Inspires

It's pretty easy to do the right thing when the conditions are right. It's not so easy when conditions are very challenging and doing the right thing could result in serious, negative consequences in the short term for us or for our organization. But it's how we respond to these challenging situations that define our character.

Dr. King was faced with an almost non-stop series of such situations for years as he led the civil rights movement. He went to jail for intentionally disobeying laws that were inhumane and perpetuated bigotry. But he did so peacefully in a way that caused no harm. He was threatened with physical violence daily at times, but he responded non-violently, with kindness, and he asked his followers to do the same.

Dr. King exemplified the epitome of character, which is the hallmark of a great leader. He was committed to doing the right thing for the greater good, regardless of the personal costs to him, and to responding to each and every person, regardless of how they treated him, with unconditional kindness and compassion. His character not only inspired his followers, but his antagonists as well.

This type of character touches us very deeply. There is something universal about selflessly serving the greater good with unconditional kindness and compassion. Something inside us knows that living in this way is our highest calling, and deep down in each one of us, there is a yearning to reach our full potential as human beings and live that way, too. When we see someone who lives in this way, we are reminded of our aspiration. We are moved. We are inspired.

What can you do today to apply these principles to inspire those around you?