"Martin Luther King Jr.: Leader of Millions in Nonviolent Drive for Racial Justice." This is the headline the New York Times used for its obituary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., published April 5, 1968. Leader of millions. Can you imagine the pressure and onus of such a title? What did it take to become a leader of millions, of a movement? In the decades since Dr. King's death, much has been discussed and written about his qualities as a leader--his willingness to say what needed to be said even when it wasn't the popular thing to say, his ability to inspire and motivate people to act not from anger but from belief that change was possible, his directness, his imperturbable deportment, his resilience and unwavering focus on the goal.
We all have conversations in our organizations every day about how to develop effective leaders and what the qualities of those leaders are. No doubt a list of the attributes of a great leader commonly acknowledged today differs little from the aforementioned list of what Dr. King continues to be so admired for. What lessons can leaders of today take from Dr. King's legacy? I think in the simplest of terms, it's the knowledge that leaders who truly inspire others are those who don't look the other way when things are amiss--they challenge the status quo. They don't ask others to do what they themselves are not willing to do too. They don't back down just because their point of view makes others uncomfortable. They take on challenges that others might steer clear of because they aren't guaranteed wins, in fact, they take on challenges that may seem wholly insurmountable if it's something they truly believe in.
Many of these qualities of effective leaders are held up by research conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). Our studies on leadership and diversity & inclusion have consistently shown that leaders in high-performance organizations are more likely to challenge exclusionary institutional practices and policies. Leaders in high-performance organizations are 2X more likely to advocate for change that will make the organization more inclusive. Our research also found that leaders in high-performance organizations are 2X more likely to seek, recruit, and develop people from varied backgrounds and that genuine, supportive leadership is a primary determinate of the success of D&I programs in increasing productivity.
While each of us may not aspire to be a leader of millions, we probably do share the common hope to be effective in whatever leadership roles we have whether it's on the job, in the community, or in our homes. So how do we work towards that and celebrate Dr. King today and every day? Speak up. Ask the tough questions. Don't take no for an answer. Put your heart into it--your whole heart. Challenge the status quo. Rattle the cages. Rock that boat.
Lorrie Lykins is i4cp's managing editor and director of research services.