As we mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's landmark "I Have A Dream" speech, our nation has renewed its attention to King's work spearheading the Civil Rights movement. The Bus Boycotts, the March on Washington, King's advocacy of nonviolence, and of course the legislation of 1964 and 1965 all carve his name deeply in the turbulent surface of the sixties. Like the best of leaders, King pointed to what was right, and what had been confusing and uncertain suddenly became obvious.
But another part of his legacy is now needed, more than all the laudatory words currently being honed for the upcoming public occasion--and that is his outstanding leadership skill. Perhaps even more than President Lincoln and his famous team of rivals, King had to lead a movement that often seemed set against itself. His lieutenants disagreed, sometimes wanting to go further, sometimes wanting to pull back. Some of them were jealous of his notoriety, some simply envied his remarkable voice. Often forgotten is that the organizers of the March on Washington itself had striking disagreements about what the march was actually about, and it took King's talent to bring the group together around specific goals.
What King achieved is a testimony to what are now called "entrepreneurial skills," the type that today might rocket him to the corner office of some Fortune 500 company (a path that he would have flatly rejected).
First of course, he saw a goal, and refused to stray from the path that would lead him there. Watching the footage of his Gage Park Chicago march, the question is: Where did this unalterable, unbending will to succeed come from? He had a visionary's gift for scenting out the right direction and turning the whole group towards it, blending vision with action in an inspirational, seamless garment for supporters to emulate. If he could do it in Alabama, they could do it anywhere.
Second, his leadership was always about reconciliation. He never ceased to see the better side in those who disagreed with him. He never saw opponents as "the other," in today’s psycho-speak. He opposed force with love. "Just keep loving them, and they can't stand it for too long," he said. Just as he did by publicly forgiving Izola Curry, the woman who stabbed him with a letter-opener in 1958. What a way to run a company or a non-profit that would be, let alone a country.
Unlike today, political power was not the end goal for King--it was a means of bringing people together in love. Love: a word so missing from today’s politics it seems strange even to mention it.
Third, he was an organizer. Look at the old photos of King strategizing with his team. He's down on the ground with them, deeply engaged in their struggles. Today, we have been pumped so full of the idea that meaning only happens at the head table that our organizations have lost that sort of strong organizing ability.
Those are just three short lessons. There are many more.
Resolving any challenge entails not concentrating on the problem itself, but rather focusing on transforming the relationships that hold the problem in place. The country is crying out for that kind of relational, transformational leadership--especially on Capitol Hill. But also elsewhere, in every company and agency and community in America. On that hot August day, King wasn't only a man with a speech. He created the conditions of vision and effectiveness that made that wonderful moment in 1963 a remarkable reality.
Mark Farr is the incoming president of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, based in Washington, DC.