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Leadership Lessons We Can Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Life of Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
January 19, 2018

In this article I’d like to add some context around the famous “I have a dream” speech of MLK – try to put a lot of us who weren’t there that day right in the middle of the action. It sure would be great to roll back time, and knowing now about the world-changing speech that was delivered that day in 1963, actually attend the speech as some time-traveler might do. We can’t do that but we can describe what happened from the perspective of MLK’s team members and other who were lucky enough to attend that day. Such testimony comes from Gary Younge’s fine book, “The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream.”

On the  Aug. 27, 1963, Dr. King asked his aides for advice about the next day’s speech. “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream’,” his adviser Wyatt Walker told him, “It’s trite, it’s cliché. You’ve used it too many times already.”

“When it came to my speech drafts,” wrote Clarence Jones, who had already penned the first draft, “King often acted like an interior designer. I would deliver four strong walls and he would use his God-given abilities to furnish the place so it felt like home.” King finished the outline at about midnight and then wrote a draft in longhand. One of his aides who went to King’s suite that night saw words crossed out three or four times. He thought it looked as though King were writing poetry. King went to sleep at about 4 am, giving the text to his aides to print and distribute. The “I have a dream” section was not in it.

King was sixteenth on an official program that included the national anthem, the invocation, a prayer, a tribute to women, two sets of songs and nine other speakers. MLK began speaking, slowly and methodically, sticking to his script. Try to imagine this: 250,000 people watching, no jumbo Tron – all they could see was a little dot on a faraway stage. As he moved towards his final words, it seemed he, too, could sense he was falling short. He felt like he needed to tap into a source of power — from his own well-known gravitas. Mahalia Jackson—often called the Queen of Gospel—King’s long-time friend, must have felt it too because from the row behind him, she cried out: “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.”

MLK continued his prepared remarks: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends.” Then King grabbed the podium and set his prepared text to his left. Jones turned to the person standing next to him and said: “Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”

Dr. King then said, “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

“Aw, —–,” Walker said. “He’s using the dream.”

Watching the whole thing on TV in the White House, President John F. Kennedy, who had never heard an entire King speech before, remarked: “He’s damned good. Damned good.”

One of King’s most trusted aides, Andrew Young, said. “The country was in more turmoil than it had been in since before the Second World War. People didn’t understand it. And he explained it. It wasn’t a black speech. It wasn’t just a Christian speech. It was an all-American speech.”

Lessons from MLK’s Leadership

First of course, he saw a goal, and refused to stray from the path that would lead him there.

Second, his leadership was always about reconciliation. He opposed force with love. “Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it for too long,” he said. Just as he did by publicly forgiving Izola Curry, the woman who stabbed him with a letter-opener in 1958. What a way to run a company or a non-profit that would be, let alone a country.

Third, he was a hands-on, involved type of leader. Look at the old photos of King strategizing with his team. He’s down on the ground with them, deeply engaged in their struggles.

Fourth – he was an idealist. He focused over the horizon, not at the end of his nose. He had an uncanny ability to see what could be and strive for it – to get others excited about it. He inspired listeners “to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges,” King also reminded his followers: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Summary

In closing, I have a dream too. It’s a dream of national unity, in a way that MLK would have approved of. My dream is for a new Americanism, where our observable behaviors match our stated beliefs – and where truth is no longer relative – it’s absolute. An American that recognizes the rule of law – where black, brown, white and any other color lives matter – and matter greatly. An America that MLK would have been proud to be a part of – one that celebrates his legacy in action – deeds, not words.


Author: Bob Brescia serves as the Executive Director of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute, Odessa, TX. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. He also serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS – West Texas public television. Please contact him at [email protected] or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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