Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Celebrating an American Dreamer

January 19, 2015

Americans are big dreamers.  These dreamers date back to the founders and continue through the biggest of them all - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If we really think about the dreamers and what that means, we will discover that they were leaders.  Very simply, people who turn dreams into reality are leaders.  Leaders take ideas and show the value those ideas have for the future – no matter what the endeavor may be.

On this celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, there are a few things to consider.  We are all familiar with the story of Dr. King’s struggle for racial equality in America, and tragically, his death 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 his impact on our country.

Now decades later, Dr. King stands strong as an example of the best characteristics of a leader as defined by leadership experts like Kouzes and Posner.  In 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 the future.  He showed us how the goodness in our hearts was the right path in 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 founders, 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.  This determination in principle leads to the next of Kouzes and Posner’s leadership model.

Surely, were Dr. King not as courageous as of a leader, the American Civil Rights movement would have lingered.  Progress would have been slower.  Those who tried to lead after Dr. King would have had a longer, harder road.  His courage allowed others to act.

If there is a lesson from Dr. King’s life – and his life is a model for so many things that can make us better – it is the importance of being united, regardless of our skin color or origin.

Leaders set the principles, goals, and identify how people should be treated. They express those ideals with deep passion and clear vision.  Leaders risk using new approaches to solve the problems they see, or the goals they have set out knowing that the present cannot be sustained in the future.  Leaders know they will make mistakes, but the cost of not acting is too large not to act.  Leaders have their hands outstretched to others.  Leaders lift others up and will push them ahead to achieve their goals.  Leaders showcase the accomplishments of others over 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 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 those 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 would restate his final prayer in the speech where he invoked the almighty -- though I would instead say this: ”Thank God Almighty for the leader that was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Leave a comment below about how Dr. King impacted your life.  Your comments will be reasons to celebrate this cornerstone American leader.