Today, as we celebrate the memory and essential work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we’re taking another look at Selma and how to lead change and examine leadership. This Oscar-nominated film tells the true story of the historic march that Martin Luther King, Jr. led in Alabama from the city of Selma to Montgomery. From it, we can see many leadership lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1964, African Americans technically had the right to vote, thanks to the Civil Rights Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Yet, when African Americans attempted to register to vote they were prevented from doing so by having to pass difficult tests or dealing with threats of violence.
For instance, when Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) tries to register, the white man processing the forms asks her to name all 60 judges in the county. When she is unable to, he refuses to complete her registration.
The movie chronicles how King (played by David Oyelowo) and his supporters got President Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although there are many tactics leaders can learn from King’s work and life, we’ll highlight a few from the film.
Here are Three Leadership Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
1. Leaders Attempt the Proper Channels First
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is ready to tackle the issue of voter registration reform for African Americans, he goes directly to President Johnson.
King already had a solid relationship with the president from their work together to end segregation. Even though he knows that Johnson is unlikely to pass a voter reform bill on the heels of the Civil Rights Act, he sets up a meeting with him and asks him to do it directly.
When Johnson tells King that passing a bill at that time isn’t an option, King decides to take matters into his own hands and organizes the march. “Johnson can’t see the full picture. Let’s paint it for him,” Kings tells his fellow Civil Rights activists.
The Takeaway: Even if you know a superior with authority on the matter is unlikely to implement a change you’d like to see within your organization, talk to him or her about it before you take any action on your own. Your boss may agree with you or you may win them over. Nevertheless, you’ll understand where your supervisor stands on the issue and can determine a better strategic response from there.
2. Leaders Have a Support System and Ask for Advice
King had a core group of advisors that he ran ideas by and got feedback from.
King was the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In that position, he had a core group of other activists within the SCLC that he used as a sounding board. He ran his ideas by them and listened to their suggestions and concerns. He and this small team had private meetings to drive the strategy of the non-violent civil rights movement.
The Takeaway: Surround yourself with smart, trustworthy people. Ideally a team with a diversity of thought and skill that compliments your strengths and weaknesses. Share ideas and talk through them before implementing vast changes or bringing them to a larger team. Even Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest leaders and activists of all time, took other people’s suggestions and feedback to heart.
3. Leaders Don’t Ask Others to Do Things They Wouldn’t Do Themselves
Despite the danger of being on the frontlines of the march and the fact that he would be a prime target for violence, King insisted on participating.
Although King knew that members of the Ku Klux Klan and staunch segregationists were violently opposed to the march and intended to hurt or kill the participants, he insisted on leading the event himself anyway.
The Takeaway: When you implement new rules within your organization or ask employees to follow a particular protocol, it’s important that you and other members of the leadership team take part, too. Your subordinates will respect you and will understand the action you asked them to take is important because you’re doing it, too. Plus, employees will see that you don’t consider yourself to be above them or exempt because of your leadership status.
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