Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 88 years old. He is known as a man who changed the world. A man who inspired hope based on the dream of what was possible, not the nightmare of what was. A man who galvanized large groups of people to take action to achieve a seemingly impossible vision. He did it before reaching 40 years of age and without any official title or authority. And he did it with a dream, not a plan.
On August 28, 1963, MLK delivered his “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he delivered a speech to 250 thousand marchers calling for the end of racism. King was 16th out of 18 speakers that day, but few can recall the other speakers or what they said. I remember the impact of hearing his speech for the first time in second grade. Reading his speech still brings tears. Because I am proud of how far we have come and because my heart breaks that we haven’t come far enough.
Let’s imagine that day in August, MLK got up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and instead laid out his 3, 5 or even 10 point plan on how to achieve racial equality.
Would he be remembered by history? Probably not.
Let’s imagine that day in August, MLK got up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and instead focused his speech on bitterness around current injustices versus on hope for what the world could be for his children.
Would we have made the progress that we have as a nation? Doubtful.
Let’s imagine that day in August, MLK got up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and instead quoted numbers, statistics and facts versus telling stories and using key phrases from important documents in American History to make his key points.
Would people still be inspired to follow him? Unlikely.
In a speech that lasted just 17 minutes, one man influenced the path of a nation and the world.
When their dream is our dream
We all have encountered a few leaders who we would drop everything and follow. Likely due to some combination of their character and how they articulate their dream.
What truly inspires people to go above and beyond? I think the list is relatively short.
To right an injustice.
To leave behind a legacy.
To make the world a better place.
To be first to accomplish something.
To create something beautiful or new.
We follow people not because of their dream. But because their dream is our dream, too. People didn’t go to the March on Washington for MLK. They went for themselves. Because something resonated with their hopes and dreams for the future.
Inspirational leadership applied
What lessons can we take from this as we work to lead people and achieve corporate visions (a.k.a. dreams)?
- Articulate the emotional ‘why’: We need to mindful of how we communicate corporate visions. Communicating growth targets in order to deliver more shareholder value or catch up to the industry will not inspire greatness. Communicating that we are going to create amazing customer connections or deliver something beautiful or new to the world will. Growth will come as a result.
- Provide the dream, not the plan: We must dream a big dream. Recognizing that the big dream will not be realized tomorrow. It takes time. We must inspire others with the same dream to join us and define the plan together.
- Focus on hope, not negativity: We need to keep the dialogue centered on the potential of what might be. Not the mistakes of the past or the obstacles of the present.
- Refine our speaking style: We need to expand beyond words on a Powerpoint slide (yes, I really said that). We need to establish historical context, use storytelling, and master repetition. All in a way that is authentic. When we share our dream, others must believe that it is part of our story not just in the moment, but before and after.
That said, now for the obligatory Powerpoint: