My Fascination with MLK
In my opinion, Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) was one of the greatest examples of human potential. He embodied every significant quality that we look for in a leader: respect, fearlessness, passion, conviction, compassion, power, humility, and mindfulness, to name just a few. I believe his prominence is a result of rare coexistences of certain qualities that often are mutually exclusive in most leaders. He held the power to motivate thousands to take action, yet possessed the highest humility. He embodied unshakeable conviction in his mission, yet practiced vast compassion for the opposition. He had the towering voice of thunder, yet had the pure eyes of a child. It is the same skillful integration of leadership traits that I seek to cultivate within me. During my time in San Diego, I worked just one block from the Martin Luther King Promenade, a quarter-mile walk dedicated to the life and teachings of MLK. I would visit the promenade for reflection almost daily and always find some deep truth to help me understand the world.
MLK’s view could be considered a system thinking approach as evident in his 1967 Christmas Day Sermon (Washington, 1986):
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality… (p. 254)
He sought interventions that highlighted a specific social issue but also carried a message that could unite the broader society. He saw the entire society as one system and understood that it could only evolve together. In his final book, titled Where do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King (1968) wrote “‘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.” (p. 190) His way of creating social movements can be linked to the spiral of transformation – inclusion, chaos, and mutual connection. As Peter Senge (2001) wrote, MLK organized a group and generated resolution-seeking tension that contained creativity and purpose. MLK’s attentiveness to where the group resided in each moment and what was needed may be his most resounding quality. He seemed to track the status of the group extraordinarily well by energizing stagnancy and grounding dangerous hostility. This ability of having the awareness of what’s needed in a group and having the courage and skillfulness to accomplish it is something I would like to further develop as a leader.
Another important quality of MLK is the trust he cultivated amongst the group through a high level of integrity and authenticity. To my knowledge, MLK never abused the trust he received from his fellow activists. Every time he spoke, I always felt his words to be heart-felt and sincere. Even when MLK spoke abstractly of social change theories, I could feel his heart behind his words. This is a very important point of emphasis for me. I want to develop the capacity to maintain a connection to my heart even when I am taking part in an analysis or strategic planning. In these processes, I have the tendency to lose connection with my heart and focus exclusively with my mental faculties. I believe that falling into a predominantly thinking mode, rather than synchronized feeling, undermines the overall group connection and health. I want to be able to honor what arises in the group and respond to it with my whole being.