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What Martin Luther King Taught us about Leadership

March on Washington, from Wikimedia CommonsWhen I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, the first words that come to mind are “I have a dream…”.  In the summer of 1963, 250,000 Americans crowded into the capital mall to be transfixed by Reverend King’s vision of a world where all men are treated as though they really are created equal.

Although the struggle for equality had been raging for at least a decade by this time, King’s speech stands out as a turning point. To me, it’s fascinating because he did not say “I have a PLAN,” he said “I have a DREAM.” That, in a nutshell, is the difference between a leader and a manager.

I’ve worked for many managers in my life, but very few leaders. My definition of a great leader is someone who could call you up in the middle of the night and say “I need you to drive to Alaska right now. When you get there, call me and I’ll tell you why you are there,” and you would do it.

Do you know anyone that you would drive to Alaska for? What makes them different?

Golden Circle, illustration by Alice RatterreeOne of the things that makes them different is what Simon Sinek calls “The Golden Circle.” His idea is that communication consists of 3 parts; What, How and Why. Most managers talk to their people about the “what;” what business we are in, what you should be doing, and what performance they expect. If they are a particularly good manager, they will also get into the “how’s;” how they want things done, how to handle unusual situations, etc. But leaders don’t communicate this way.

Leaders start at the center of the jawbreaker. They paint their vision of a better world and your role in it. They inspire you to figure out how you will achieve that vision and what specifically needs to be done to accomplish it. In doing so, they engage your intellect, drive, motivation, talents and skills.

Five Differences Between Managers and Leaders

Create a plan and budget. Set a direction and vision.
Create org charts and staffing plans. Align people.
Control people. Motivate people.
Create a culture of compliance. Create a culture of leadership.
Cope with complexity. Cope with change.

Leadership isn’t a replacement for management. Both are required. But as John Kotter of Harvard said, “Most US corporations today are over-managed and under-led. Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership is about coping with change.” In the 25 years since he made that observation, global competition, reduced product lifecycles, economic uncertainty, shifting workforce demographics and accelerating technological change have made leadership more valuable than ever.

How would you rate yourself on leadership? Are you inspiring your people to achieve? Or are you simply monitoring their performance? How many of them would drive to Alaska for you?


  1. We learn greatness from watching others be great. Dr. King stands head and shoulders above most of us for his vision, his tireless work, and ultimately his personal sacrifice in driving this nation largely against its will to a place that we needed to go. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Dr. King. Hopefully this will inspire you to think of others.
  2. You can watch Senek’s TED talk on “The Golden Circle” here.

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