What Does it Take to Become a True Leader? Lessons from MLK

How do you want to be remembered?  I ask because as we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King today, like many other people I find myself thinking of his “I Have a Dream” speech and remember when I first heard it on an old, rabbit-eared television 51 years ago.  As a teenager, living in a fairly close-knit middle-class community in New England, I was becoming acutely aware of the  depth of inequality that still existed in my own country.  Like many other teenagers of my day, I was first rallied by John Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you;  ask what you can do for your country.’   Now, just a couple of years. I watched mesmerized, as a crowd of over a quarter of a million people of all ages, races, creeds, and genders rallied at the Lincoln Monument to hear an impassioned young reverend and civil rights leader share a call to action that would change the world.


How can two people have the capacity to move so many? Charisma by itself isn’t enough. It takes Leadership.  It takes being the best we can be, so we can help others be the best they can be. While JFK planted visions of his own and asked for our participation, Martin Luther King’s visions spoke for all of us and provided the vehicle that inspired us to action. As he said,  ‘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.’


What did he teach us about true leadership?


  • Share your vision: Dr. King’s dream was not only his dream for his own children but for all our children.
  • Inspire Action: He believed, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
  • Lead by example:  Dr. King lived his life by the words of Mahatma Gandhi who said. ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’
  • It’s never about ‘me’:  It’s always about ‘us.’  True leaders know they cannot succeed on their own. He showed us all, that only together could we make a difference and invoke change.
  • Share Optimism: He provided hope, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
  • Be a Person of Integrity: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
  • Be Confident: The time is always right to do what is right.’ He understood that to lead, he must always show confidence and courage. Despite threats against his life, he never waivered on his convictions.


Dr. King shared his vision; and we live it.  We are all part of his legacy.  He had the dream, but we are its reality; and for that, we say Thank You.


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