Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. epitomized the qualities of leadership and self-sacrifice. His actions made him one of the great leaders of the 20th century, Time Magazine’s “Man Of The Year” in 1963 and a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1964.
Today we celebrate his life and work. As many enjoy this three-day weekend, I encourage you to take time to think about the legacy that Dr. King left behind. The leadership lessons that he gave the world are as important today as they were then.
There are many lessons we can learn from Dr. King about being a better person and a better leader. In his honor, apply these 12 points of his wisdom – that I value — to your life.
(1) Be your best. In the all-time favorite “Street Sweeper” speech, King called for excellence in whatever you do when he said,
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, …Here lived a great street sweeper.”
Surveys show that 85 percent of Americans dread going to work, waiting for the paycheck and retirement. Instead, find value in what you do. King elaborated his street sweeper theme, when he addressed students at Barratt High School in October, 1967:
“Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley but be the best little shrub on the side of the hill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
(2) Believe that you are a “somebody.” As King implored,
“Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody… Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”
(3) Service to others is key to happiness and greatness. As King said,
“If you want to be great – that’s wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s your new definition of greatness – it means that everybody can be great because everybody can serve…You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verbs agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
(4) Happiness comes from making others’ happy. Bring joy to someone else’s life from your heart without thinking of what you get in return. King put this poignantly, when he said,
“Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.”
(5) You are your brother’s keeper. Born to a family of pastors, King echoes this principle from the Bile as well as the “I-thou” philosophy of another Martin —existentialist Martin Buber – when he said,
“‘I’ cannot reach fulfillment without ‘thou.’ The self cannot be self without other selves. Self-concern without other-concern is like a tributary that has no outward flow to the ocean…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
(6) Acknowledge, appreciate and compliment others. Honor those who serve. Thank the doorman, bus driver and messenger as if they were as talented as Michaelangelo, Beethoven or Shakespeare, or whomever you admire for excellence. King said,
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
(7) Forgive even if you can’t forget. A fan of Ghandi, Reverend King weighed in on the importance and power of forgiveness, when he said,
“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.
(8) Be bold. Instead of being overwhelmed – whether cleaning the garage or attaining world peace — take one small step at a time, and the big picture will manifest. as King said,
“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see he whole staircase, just take the first step.”
(9) Dream for yourself and others. Let King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 as 250,000 protestors marched on Washington, inspire you. The Nobel Peace Prize winner had
“a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality.”
(10) Be fearless. The 1963 Time Magazine Man of the Year eerily presaged his demise when he declared he had been to the mountaintop. Live your life free from fear. As King defied,
“I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”
(11) Believe that love conquers all. Refuse to let negative energy ruin your life. See those who upset you as your teacher; send them love to defuse their hate. In the spirit of Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, and other prophets of peace, King declared,
“Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it…. Darkness can not drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
(12) Let hope spring eternal. Research shows that hope helps cancer patients live longer despite the severity of their illness. Wake up with hope each day even if you’ve lost a job, money, home or loved ones. In King’s inspirational words,
“If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all… Don’t let tough times get you down. Stand up for freedom, stand up for justice, stand up for economic progress, and stand up for a world free from fear, free from terror, free from oppression. And when the storm clouds gather, when things get tough, persevere and don’t give up.”