Martin Luther King: On Leadership
Sarah Hobson, Ph.D.
A very wise friend once told me that the secret to her strong marriage was one thing: she and her husband were for one another, no matter what forces sought to pull them apart.
The same holds true for a strong country and world. To succeed, we have to be for one another, no matter what, no matter what forces seek to pull us apart.
I moved to St. Louis at five years old from New York City. Instantly, I knew something was very wrong with this city and its surrounding counties. I dedicated my life to figuring out why races and classes were so divided.
In 3rd grade, Clayton schools desegregated. In 4th grade, I had my first black teacher, Mrs. Eaton. Eager to learn everything she knew about the world, I sat at her feet. I stayed after school and hung with her on a regular basis. I don’t remember what she and I discussed, but I do remember how I loved her. I remember her face and her watchful expression as we talked. I remember her raspy voice from smoking. More than anything, I remember feeling deeply loved by her. I knew she was for me. She knew I was for her.
Somewhere during that year with her, I wrote an essay committing my life to the path of Martin Luther King. I remember before I wrote the essay, distinctly thinking – I would rather be on the right side of history and lose than on the wrong side of history and win.
This is what I love about Martin Luther King Jr. In a world intent on teaching us to be against one another, he was for everyone.
He was for people, not for systems of supremacy or individual expressions of supremacy that perpetuate master-slave relationships within and across race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or ability. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” (Martin Luther King).
He wanted change for all of us in every echelon of our industries, our places of worship, our communities and our families. He wanted us to see through the top-down oftentimes domineering leadership styles passed on from systems of slavery and from generation to generation. “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity” (Martin Luther King).
These leadership styles limit who we can be in our workplaces and our homes. They limit how we work together and construct knowledge together and how we relate to one another and tap into each of our cultural and personal expertise. They limit our abilities to interrogate the design of messaging behind every division. They limit our abilities to buck the tribes we rigidly think are the sole expression of our identities and to discover new pathways for making change together.
For Martin Luther King, leadership was about bringing people together in a unity that was not about uniformity in thinking but that drew out the varying perspectives in the service of better identifying needed change. “Unity has never meant uniformity” (MLK).
He advocated for people of all races and classes to join the Poor People’s Campaign. He advocated for America to pursue peace in Vietnam and surrounding Asian countries.
“We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” (Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence).
He advocated for every person to invest in lifting those around them and thus society overall. "We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience." (MLK)
How will we become a society that sees through top-down leadership styles embedded through systems of supremacy that silence us or that we use to silence others? How will we become a society that sees through messaging that perpetuates scarcity thinking, competition and division? We start by following in Martin Luther King’s footsteps.
We start by taking a stance of learning with and from our teams, communities, and families, celebrating everything teammates bring. We start by creating room for anyone we lead to become leaders, lifting them up and elevating them to the places they naturally lead.
Martin Luther King set out to create visionary spaces for people to listen to and empower one another to use their differences in the service of making change.
He set out to break down divisions cast upon us by messaging intended on pitting us against one another – a continuation of the social design of owners of land, political power, and people who privileged some races, genders, classes, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, ability and more over others to ensure those with some degree of privilege protected their own small set of advantages and thus the ruling class’s power by keeping others down.
He set out to embody a commitment to being for every person he met – listening on spiritual dimensions for how to love people well and with grace and truth who bought into domineering leadership styles, tribalism and division, walking with them through confusing messaging towards deeper, richer more integrated relationships with themselves and with others.
This is the work of honoring ourselves, our stories, and those around us. We welcome you to learn more about this Honoring Stories and Integrating Curriculum™ change-making process here.
Sarah Hobson, Ph.D. specializes in supporting teams, departments and schools, businesses, and government agencies in building inclusive innovative change-making communities who understand how to connect well with and join diverse populations in providing needed sustainable resources for all youth and families.