Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
January is the month that we celebrate a great man and a powerful leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The media, schools and workplaces share stories about his work and struggles. There are celebrations with speakers, music and activities designed to bring people together in unity and activism. Communities sponsor service projects inspired by his principles and activism.
One of his most referenced speech is “I have a Dream”, first made in Detroit after he and an interracial group of dignitaries led 125,000 people in what was then the largest civil rights march in the country. He made a similar speech later at the even larger March on Washington.
What made this, and other speeches so compelling? What can we learn from Dr. King? Leaders, take note…
Vision – He paints a clear picture of a desired future where his “four little children…will be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” He goes on to describe a world where oppression is transformed into an “oasis of freedom and justice.” Leaders must consistently present a positive vision of the future that people can see, want to be part of, and be willing to work toward.
Storytelling and metaphor – People love stories. Good stories can be told and retold. They become the foundation upon which to build plans and take action. Metaphors give meaning and substance to abstract concepts like freedom, unity, service.
Repetition and cadence – Important statements about purpose, priorities, and goals are worthy of repetition…particularly if they are positive and uplifting. We may not speak like Dr. King, but we can learn from the way he uses pace, pauses and tone to carry the listener along with the message.
Passion – It begins with a desire. Dr. King desired freedom from oppression and equal opportunity for all. You can hear the emotion in his voice and words. It ignites and resonates with emotions that humans can feel. If a leader isn’t passionate about the purpose or project…and communicates it with feeling, others won’t be inspired to engage and act.
Action – Dr. King walked his talk. He took risks. He stood for his values. He was inclusive. He was willing to change his mind when better information was presented. This is not the easy path. If leaders expect their teams to perform, they must show and model the way forward.
Continuous Learning – Dr King honed his speaking craft through his years of ministry, diplomacy, and activism. One learns to speak eloquently by practicing, practicing, practicing. Learning to speak clearly and compellingly is a leadership best practice that can (and should) be developed through coaching, video feedback, Toastmasters or public speaking courses. You will gain confidence, competence and comfort in communicating to groups of all sizes. This will help you be a better leader…and your followers deserve it.