Sales Coaching Blog

5 Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted by Kristi Shoemaker

February 1, 2012

Don’t underestimate low-level employees
Just as King didn’t hesitate to quote philosophers in his written pieces, great business leadersMartin Luther King should not underestimate even the lowest level employees in their organizations. “I was worried about the references, but he assured me that wisdom is present in people even in the most humble circumstances,” remembers Robert Ellis Smith, the person who work with Martin Luter King, Jr. on this article published in 1965 . “He taught me never to underestimate anyone below me, that they have wisdom, life experience and are introspective.”

Embrace fear
King didn’t hide his fear. He was scared before every speech and worried that his points wouldn’t be well received or that he would be met with violent protests, says Smith. But instead of hiding, he talked about it and faced his fear head on.

 "If you are not anxious, that means you are not engaged, that you shouldn’t fear fear, you should go with it,"

King’s willingness to embrace his fear is a great lesson for small business owners. Organizations may fear competition and new technology in today’s business environment, but instead of shying away it is important to face these obstacles head on and not to be afraid of change.

Encourage ‘creative tension’
Every time King visited a new city to spread his message, community leaders would blame him for disturbing the norm. But to King, that was the point.

“Creative tension’ to explain that fairness and change come only when you shake things up”

Today’s leaders can use this lesson within their own organizations by encouraging new ideas and internal criticism from employees.

Know the ‘why’
Over in Washington, D.C., Daron Pressley may not have known King personally, but as a small business owner, he looks to the Civil Rights icon as a beacon of inspiration in his company.

“I think Dr. King’s biggest leadership lesson that translates to my business is to make sure my team knows why we do what we do,” says Pressley, founder of The Premier Athlete, a student athlete development company. “It isn’t just to make a profit, it is knowing your purpose, cause and belief.”

Instead of giving an 'I Have a Plan' speech, King gave his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech, says Pressley. He recommends small business owners use this fact to talk to employees about what they believe, the real reason for starting their business and whom the business is helping. By doing this, entrepreneurs can inspire those around them, just like King did.

Involve everyone
King inspired community involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, and it worked partly because people wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves.

"People derive inspiration from involvement, so the lesson is to get your people involved.”

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