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Leading Change: What Leaders Today Can Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By: and :: Published: February 26, 2015

As the celebration of Black History Month winds down, we reflect on the powerful lessons that strategic leaders of all colors and stripes can learn from one of the most courageous leaders of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The new movie “Selma” reminds us of his bold vision (“I have a dream.”), unconventional tactics (non-violent protest) and enormous fortitude in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Showcasing Dr. King’s strategic acumen in outmaneuvering powerful adversaries like President Lyndon Johnson and Governor George Wallace, his journey — both literal and figurative — exemplifies key disciplines of transformational leadership that we have distilled from research with more than 30,000 leaders across that globe and profile in our book, “Winning The Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape The Future.”

King’s mastery of strategic leadership, specifically the ability to challenge unjust social conventions, provides powerful lessons to help leaders overcome deeply entrenched biases that affect social systems and business alike, and successfully lead change. In our experience, successfully challenging the status quo requires opening windows and looking in the mirror. 

Open the Window

King understood that changing long-standing assumptions about racism tied to a deeply rooted way of life and business models relying on cheap labor could only happen if people challenged their mental models. He pushed people out of their comfort zones by opening the proverbial window, that is, promulgating outside perspectives to see complex issues in context.

He realized he could not overcome deep-seated bigotry unless he made it visible to a wide audience. By getting national press coverage of state-sanctioned atrocities with women, children and the elderly in the South, a barrage of shocking TV images made rampant criticism everyone’s problem.

To open windows and expand perspectives with your own constituents, as MLK did so effectively:

  • Create forums that encourage stakeholders to challenge conventional wisdom.
    Dr. King faced racism that represented a way of life in the South. As Governor George Wallace said, we have our ways of doing things down here, with the subtext that outsiders should not intervene. Clearly, a status quo that is comfortable for many but unjust for the few won’t lead to change unless leaders confront the moral flaws and find novel ways to make negative consequences visible. 
  • Seek out diverse views to see multiple sides of an issue.
    Too often we surround ourselves with people who share our views and fall prey to groupthink. King surrounded himself with other strong leaders and was open to their ideas, enabling him to expand his perspective and consider a range of options that were not immediately apparent. Alternate views were debated before he settled on the now epic march from Selma to Montgomery.

Look in the Mirror

As vividly depicted in the film, King faced his own doubts, confronted painful tradeoffs and struggled with the sacrifices that followers paid on the front lines. He confided in his colleagues and his wife and found strength to persevere after also seriously questioning the viability of his approach. 

How often do you, as a leader, step back to question your course of action and revise your plan in light of changing conditions? King did this on the bridge from Selma when he chose to back down from a violent confrontation, confusing and infuriating his team. His strategic savvy was on full display when he skillfully employed tactics to force politicians, law enforcement officials, clergy and people from all walks of life to stare into their own mirrors and consciences.

To follow MLK’s example and look within:

  • Confront your own biases and those of your stakeholders.
    We are all vulnerable to confirmation biases where we seek out information that reinforces our current position. The art of challenging involves finding ways to see through the blinders, overcome myopia and avoid easy or false consensus. Many black advocates wanted to confront violence with violence in the South, citing scripture and imploring “an eye for an eye.” King helped followers recognize that although that was an understandable visceral reaction, it would actually backfire and undermine both material and moral support.
  • Reframe problems from several angles to understand the root cause. 
    Looking beyond the local battles, King saw that the real problem in the South was the inability to enforce voting rights and elect politicians who represented the interests of black citizens. To win the long game, he had to convince President Johnson, and many legislators, to create new laws ensuring access to the polls. By framing the issue of inequality in a national context, King was able to focus his efforts where they would count the most.

Visionary leaders like MLK who change the world toward greater social justice are exceedingly rare. King ranks with Ghandi and Mandela as transformational leaders who transcended their place and time: they have become role models and beacons for all of us. As our world becomes more complex with clashing civilizations, global turmoil, environmental degradation and possibly irreversible damage to our earthly habitat, the need for strategic leaders on the world stage is greater than ever. To rise to the occasion, countries, companies and educational institutions need to recognize the attributes that Dr. King exemplified, and focus on efforts to promote and develop such capabilities in future leaders. Only then can we overcome a rising tide of uncertainty and complexity for the benefit of the many, rather than the privileged few.

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