Leadership lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on leading change and examining leadership and are as relevant today as they were in 1965 during the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.

As we pause today to honor his memory and essential work, we revisit three timeless leadership lessons from 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 personally asks him to do it.

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 your manager 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 regularly consulted.

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 advisors. He ran his ideas by them and listened to their suggestions and concerns. He and this small team had private meetings to create and implement the strategy of the non-violent civil rights movement.

The Takeaway: Surround yourself with smart, trustworthy people. Ideally, the team will have diverse thoughts and skills that complement your strengths and weaknesses. Share ideas and talk through them before implementing big changes. 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.

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. Your subordinates will respect you and will understand the action you asked them to take is important because you’re doing it as well. 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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