Lessons Business Leaders Can Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Stephen DeAngelis

January 20, 2020

Today, Americans pause to reflect on the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His impact was most keenly felt in the area of civil liberties and race relations; however, the lessons he taught and principles he embraced have an impact in many areas of life — including business. Perhaps the greatest lesson taught by Dr. King is the importance of focusing on the big picture. Maddie Johnson writes, “One of the most important lessons to be learned from Dr. King is to always know the why behind what you’re doing. Part of what made the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech so inspirational was that it painted a picture of what Dr. King saw for the future. Everything he was doing was in the name of achieving that vision.”[1] Below are other valuable lessons business leaders can learn from Dr. King’s life and teachings.

Lesson 1. Choose to shine in times of trial. Dr. King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.” The business world doesn’t often require us to risk our lives, but courage is nevertheless required when faced with challenging conditions. The staff at The Shine Project write, “It’s easy to be brave when there’s no courage required. It’s easy to be successful when all the cards play out right. And it’s easy to give when you have surplus. But who are you when those things are taken away? Who are you when you feel like you can’t go on anymore, and have nothing left to give? That’s what defines us. Choose to shine, no matter what.”[2]

Lesson 2. Serve people. If your only aim in life is the pursuit of profit, you’re likely to go to the grave unfulfilled. Businesses, like many of life’s activities, are meant to serve people. Dr. King stated, “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Obviously, businesses want to turn a profit; however, don’t forget the best way to garner loyalty and grow your business is serving both your employees and your customers. McLean Mills (@mcleanmills7), a human resources specialist, adds, “While it’s very easy to get bogged down in your own issues and focus solely on what you can do to further your career, it’s important to recognize that what you’re doing for others is what is going to distinguish you. Focus on helping people; you’d be surprised at how good karma can pay off in your life and career.”[3]

Lesson 3. Take action. Having dreams and aspirations are important but without action they are insufficient to achieve greatness. Dr. King stated, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Too many businesses have faltered because they didn’t take action when action was required. If you are a business professional just starting out, Mills offers this advice, “Entry-level life can be extremely daunting but keeping faith in your abilities and potential is paramount to sticking it out for the end game. Faith in your industry will dictate where it is you want to go. Sometimes the path to the top (or ‘the whole staircase’) is very clear. You’re entry-level, then you’re an assistant, then you’re an executive. More often than not, however, it is much more complicated than that. At this point, there are a million ways to succeed and a-million-and-one ways to fall short. Keep faith in what you are doing and why you are doing it. The top of the ladder might only be a glimmering dream as you walk by the corner office, but it’s so very important to take everything one step at a time.”

Lesson 4. Emphasize teamwork. Dr. King stated, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead.” The Shine Project notes, “We are better when we do things together. We can only accomplish so much by ourselves. Together, we can take on the world.” Johnson adds, “Making a difference is a team effort. Without the communities and audiences he inspired, Dr. King’s words would never have had the impact they did. He did more than just be heard — he asked people to join him. People want to be a part of something special and he inspired them to be involved in something bigger than themselves.”

Lesson 5. Demonstrate grit. Dr. King stated, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Johnson notes, “Achieving Dr. King’s dream was not an instant success. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, King faced countless setbacks and moments of failure. He was arrested over 20 times, his house was bombed and set aflame, and he was even stabbed. But King never let these obstacles stand in his way. He had a dream and he was determined to see it through.” Studies have shown that perseverance (aka grit) can help people perform better.

Lesson 6. Become a lifelong learner. Dr. King stated, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Lifelong learning also requires grit. If adults want to become lifelong learners, they need to persevere in their efforts to gain knowledge. People who stop learning don’t remain where they are, they fall back because the world is racing ahead. We’re all aware of how much new knowledge is being created every day. It’s the reason that most professions require their practitioners to pursue continued education. Although formal, continuing education courses are important, individuals can learn on their own — if they persevere.

Too many business leaders are filled with false bravado. Johnson notes, “A good leader doesn’t have to be fearless — they only have to be willing to face their fear. Journalist Robert Ellis Smith revealed that King often felt scared or worried before a speech that he would be misunderstood or met with violent protests, but he always carried on. He told Smith, ‘If you are not anxious, you are not engaged.'” Business consultant Joseph Steinberg (@JosephSteinberg) writes, “Dr. King and many others spent years of their lives in order to make the Civil Rights movement succeed. Without their efforts who knows what America might look like today? While there may be some lucky people who succeed in business without much effort, such individuals are far and few in between. And, in most cases, the people whom we think succeeded without much effort actually worked quite hard to accomplish their achievements.”[4] Working hard, seeing the big picture, and acting with dignity are traits all business leaders can aspire to obtain.

Footnotes
[1] Maddie Johnson, “4 Leadership Lessons We Can Learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Level Up, 15 January 2020.
[2] Staff, “7 Lessons Learned from Martin Luther King, Jr,” The Shine Project.
[3] McLean Mills, “3 Powerful Lessons From Martin Luther King That Will Impact Your Career,” Monster.com.
[4] Joseph Steinberg, “7 Lessons From Martin Luther King Jr. Every Entrepreneur Must Learn,” Inc., 15 January 2016.