One of the true marks of transformative leaders is that what we learn from them can transcend time. Every year, as I remember the work and life of Martin Luther King Jr., I am in awe of how his writings, actions, and the leadership principles with which he lived are still just as relevant today as they were more than 50 years ago.
As we continue to navigate through a time in our history where we deal with threats to our democracy, racial injustice, and vast inequalities across many levels of society, I've seen many leaders frustrated and at times paralyzed about what their role should be in creating positive change.
Here are four leadership principles to embrace from King to guide you in your quest to be a better leader.
1. Embrace the "we" mindset.
If we've learned anything from the global pandemic we continue to live through, it's that we are all connected. We are all part of a tightly woven system, where what happens in one area has an impact on others in another part of the system.
And because we are all connected, it behooves us to take a "how can we all thrive" approach, rather than a "how can me and mine thrive."
King talked about this in his Letter From Birmingham Jail to other members of clergy:
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
As a leader, when you focus your efforts on making sure that everyone thrives, it will change the way you view and tackle problems.
2. Embrace tension.
Tension makes a lot of people uncomfortable, myself included. But avoidance of tension keeps us firmly planted within our comfort zone. Unjust systems don't get dismantled, and tough problems don't get solved without some discomfort.
King talked about this as well in his Birmingham letter, when he noted, "I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth."
When you see systems within your team, your company, or even in society at large that are detrimental to those you serve, lean into the tension that will be required to make positive change.
At a minimum, that means speaking up to take a stand against actions you feel are wrong and go against your values. King spoke of this too when he wrote, "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."
3. Embrace learning and unlearning.
It is an unfair expectation that any leader should have all the answers, especially as we navigate through uncharted territory filled with complex problems.
But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't take the time to educate yourself beyond just a superficial level on matters that impact your team.
Here's how King covered this issue in his Birmingham letter: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
Prioritize listening, learning, empathizing, and especially unlearning the ways of thinking and operating that aren't rooted in truth and justice. Go deep and wide in your education efforts.
4. Embrace being an extremist.
Extremism often has a negative connotation associated with it. But King points out in his writings that many great leaders were all extremists in their own right.
We don't often talk about or remember the accomplishments of people who followed the status quo or deviate only slightly from the norm. It is those who boldly charted a different path and point of view that we admire, comment on, and ironically model behavior after.
King asked his fellow clergy to get involved and support the civil rights movement by asking them to be extremists:
So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
Decide what kind of extremist leader you will be in your quest to make lasting and meaningful change. Extremism looks different on everyone, so take the time to figure out what feels right for you. The most important thing is in deciding to take a clear stand about what you are fighting for.