Profiles of Courage: Leadership Lessons from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Dr. Artika R. Tyner

On January 20th, 2014, we give honor to one of the greatest leaders that the world has ever known, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not just today but every day, it is important to spend time in reflection on the leadership lessons that we can learn from Dr. King’s example. He can be characterized as the Moses of the civil rights movement who cried out for the freedom and liberty. Like Moses, he assumed this mantle of leadership with unwavering faith, tenacity and courage. He recognized the power of one and how one person in partnership with others can awaken the conscience of a Nation. This point is made evident through his statement his refusal to believe that “[…] man is unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.”  The ability to positively influence the world around you and the lives of others is the foundation of leadership.

On February 4th, 1968 just two months before his untimely death, Dr. King shared reflections on leadership in his prolific speech: “The Drum Major Instinct.” This speech challenges us to define leadership through a demonstration of service and love for others.

Drum Major Instinct –

Here are a few leadership lessons that will strengthen your leadership platform and expand your influence:

1.      To Be Great, You Must Become a Servant

Leaders must overcome some of the tendencies of human nature, like the focus on achieving a sense of importance and obtaining prominence, in order to truly reach the height of one’s leadership potential. This pinnacle is leveraging your leadership to serve the needs of others. Dr. King characterized these feelings as the drum major instinct:

And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.

Being a drum major is intuitive in nature. However, Dr. King challenged us to explore how we will maximize our leadership influence. Will you use your leadership position to simply gain more power and to exercise this power over others?  Alternatively, Dr. King offers leaders the opportunity to harness this power for the greater good by empowering others to lead and modeling the qualities of a servant.

2.      Be First in Modeling Excellence

Leaders not only show the way but they lead the way. Dr. King challenged leaders to model excellence in service to others and acts of love. By modeling the way, your life will become a source of inspiration to others. This is the type of leadership that sparked the civil rights movement as people from all walks of life discovered their ability to lead social change in their communities and in the Nation following Dr. King’s example. This is a focus of putting first things first:

But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

3.      Create the New Normal

Some follow the crowd, while others lead the crowd. Through the exploration of the leadership profile of Jesus Christ, Dr. King outlined the importance of greatness emerging from your commitment to service to others. This boils down to one simple question: Will you leave the world a better place than how you found it? If the answer is yes, then this is when your greatness will emerge. Dr. King shares:

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

4.      Empower Others to Lead

Everyone has a role to play. Each person has a unique composition of leadership strengths that when leveraged strategically can have a tremendous effect. The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott is a profound example of the power of the collective. Once they took a stand against segregation, nothing could stand in their way. For over 13 months, people from all walks of life exercised leadership as they challenged injustice through their words and deeds. According to Dr. King, everyone has a key role to play in creating change:

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.

5.      Build a Leadership Legacy

Leadership should have a lasting impact hence the true test of your leadership is: how will you be remembered? Dr. King desired for his leadership legacy to focus on his commitment to service.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

The essence of the drum major instinct transforms the traditional notion of leadership and offers a glimpse of an alternative paradigm. Traditionally, leadership focuses on title, accolades and achievements; however this new definition offers a challenge for each of us to focus on serving the needs of others. We are left with a call to action- will you follow in Dr. King’s example and take heed to your call to serve? Be a drum major for justice, be a drum major for peace, and be a drum major for righteousness.

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Dr. Artika Tyner
Dr. Artika R. Tyner is a passionate educator, author, sought after speaker, and advocate for justice. At the University of St. Thomas College of Education, Leadership & Counseling, Dr. Tyner serves as a public policy/leadership professor. She trains graduate students to serve as social engineers who create new inroads to justice and freedom.