Americans are dreamers. These dreamers date back to our founders, and continue through to one of the most iconic of them all: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If we really think about the dreamers and what they stand for, we might discover that they were, in fact, leaders. Very simply, people who turn their dreams into reality are leaders. Leaders take ideas and show the value those ideas will have on the future—our future.
We're all likely familiar with the story of Dr. King’s struggle for racial equality in America, and tragically, his death that came far too early. I saw those headlines and read those news stories. I saw what it was like as a child growing up in Chicago. I saw the disparities. One of the many things for which I am thankful is the leadership demonstrated by Dr. King, and, consequently, the impact he had on our country as we know it.
Now decades later, Dr. King stands strong as someone exemplifying some of the core characteristics of a leader as defined by experts like Kouzes and Posner. In their book, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, Kouzes and Posner define a leader in terms of:
- Modeling the Way
- Inspiring a Shared Vision
- Challenging the Process
- Enabling Others to Act
- Encouraging the Heart
Dr. King articulated the principles for how everyone should be treated. He told us how the future should look. He showed us how we could change that future. He showed us how the goodness in our hearts was the right path to making change happen.
Dr. King modeled the way for us as he delivered the consistent message that there should not be barriers to accessing the fundamental institutions of American citizenship. Since the very beginning of America, citizenship has been defined as the franchise to vote in public elections freely.
Inspired leaders today can look to Dr. King as a participant in the voting registration marches in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
Dr. King challenged the process. His civil disobedience arrests were the manifestation of his unwillingness to allow the status quo to continue. Things had to change. If it meant that he would suffer the indignity of an arrest, at least the world would see that he was a man of principle.
Surely, were Dr. King not as courageous a leader, the American Civil Rights movement might have eventually lost steam. Progress would have slowed. Those who came after Dr. King would have had an even longer, harder road. His courage afforded others the opportunity to act.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Dr. King’s life—and his life is a model for so many things that can make us better—it might be the importance of standing united, regardless of our skin color or origin.
Leaders set the principles, goals, and standards for how people should be treated. They express those ideals with a deep passion and clear vision. Leaders aren't afraid to try new approaches to solve the problems they see, or to reach the goals they have set knowing that the present cannot be sustained in the future. Leaders know that they will make mistakes, but that the cost of not acting is far too great. Leaders have their hands outstretched to others. Leaders lift others up and push them ahead to achieve their own goals. Leaders showcase the accomplishments of others over focusing on their own contributions.
As we look at the lives of leaders and the things they have said in the course of their life struggles, it’s their words and actions that stand out.
Thinking about some of the most inspiring speeches in American history—Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt—there is one that I am glad that I can still hear in my memory. On August 28, 1963, on the Washington Mall, it was the the words of the man we honor today in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
From beginning to end, his voice still resonates. I can still hear the last few words of that speech:
"And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'"
As I reflect on the meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, I'd like to change just one part of the iconic speech above: ”Thank God Almighty for the leader who was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
This post was written by an employee of the Colorado Public Employees' Retirement Association (PERA). If you are interested in submitting a guest post, send your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org.