Showing Up

Whenever I feel too self-important, I think about the courage it took to walk across a bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Most of the people that day didn’t give speeches, address news crews or create a riot. They went for a walk. They got pushed back. They walked again. They walked until they made it.

The March to Montgomery took three tries, but 25,000 people arrived in Montgomery on March 25, 1965. The Voting Rights Act became law later that year.

Twenty-five thousand people showed up. They changed the world by taking a courageous walk. Together. I don’t know their names. I don’t know their stories. They changed the world by showing up.

2018. My country is broken. My daughter is 10 years old, and the world is nothing like the world I thought I would give her. I’m not doing enough.

I can’t be a hero, but the world doesn’t need heroes. The world still needs people willing to show up and take a walk.

Why Martin Luther King Day Matters to Everyone

I was 12 years old when Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday. I grew up in the American South with a lot of kind, generous but sometimes confused people. I remember feeling frustrated by my conversations with people I respect who seemed to resent the new holiday and wondered why we celebrate this one man, Martin Luther King, Jr, with a day of federal rest yet do not honor our presidents in the same way. I was frustrated then because I didn’t have the words to answer their question.

Twenty-eight years later,  I have those words.

My country is addicted to the idea of our presidents as essential leaders. Every four years, we cast our ballots in hope, whether voiced or silent, that we are electing a uniquely gifted person who can lead us (all of us) into our better future.

We expect too much of this person. We make our president too important, and, inevitably, we are disappointed when our unrealistic hopes are dashed. We are angry when our president turns out to have too small a vision or lacks the will to break those things we believe ought to be broken.

I have come to understand Martin Luther King Day as a day to reflect on leadership. Not power. Not prestige. I think about leadership, the kind Martin Luther King, Jr. showed more than 50 years ago. It is the kind showed by millions of others right now, today. We just don’t have a name for it.

Authentic leaders give people a voice. They voice the shared thoughts of people who cannot be heard. They articulate the unexpressed aspirations of people who cannot place the stuff of their own heart into words. They simplify complexity. They make the impossible seem attainable. They declare what others secretly hope to be true. They create impatience where complacency has become harmful. Authentic leaders help people recognize and overcome barriers to their own self-interest. Authentic leaders inspire action. They recognize and develop the natural energies of a shared ideal. They shape ambitions and catalyze dreams.

And then, they step aside so many hands can get to work.

There are a few presidents who exhibit these qualities, but there are many, many regular people who lead this way every day.

And so, Martin Luther King Day, for me, is not a celebration of just one man and the remarkable things he was able to achieve.  Martin Luther King Day is a call to action more than a memorial. It is a reminder that this country is still being built and the building requires many hands. We aren’t finished.

We do need good presidents. We deserve better senators and representatives. And yet, our country is not made by them. Our future does not belong to them. We make our country, every day. America is its people. This, I think, is an idea worth a federal holiday.

Having Power vs. Giving Power: Leadership Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are many reasons why Dr. King still matters 45 years after his death.

He gave hope to millions of people who had lost hope.

He gave voice to people who had never had the chance to find and use their own voice.

At a time when many believed that social change required violent revolution,
Dr. King recognized that non-violent social change penetrates deeper and lasts longer than violent change.

He helped people separate hatred of others from hatred of their behaviors.

He reached past habits of prejudice and suspicion to see that white was not the enemy of black and black was not the enemy of white.

His was a voice of eloquence and inspiration when America was tired, demoralized and cynical.

Dr. King gave power rather than held power. This is the leadership lesson from Dr. King all people can still use.

The relationship between leadership and power is often confused. Leadership is about influence.

Some leaders seek to gain and hold power. Power, for them, is a scarce commodity. Few people possess power, and those who do must recognize their advantage and wield that power like a blunt instrument. In this way, the power of leadership to influence behavior is coercive and compulsory. People obey the power so long as it is exerted and forcefully applied. We have, I think, a long list of leaders who followed this model. Some have been presidents, elected officials, business leaders, and preachers. We often celebrate these kinds of leaders, yet, when we do, we celebrate what they were able to accomplish. There is a sense of separation, an apartness that comes from knowing that their accomplishments were not our own.

Some leaders seek to gain and hold power. Fewer are the leaders who find power so that they can give it to others. This is the kind of leadership Martin Luther King, Jr. showed. His Dream was not a personal fantasy of power and control. His Dream was creation of a society that allowed everyone else to recognize and develop their own dreams. He worked to create a society that gave everyone access to the tools of success as well as the opportunity to use those tools. He worked through the structure of power to make power more accessible and available. Rather than give a vision to his followers, he inspired his followers to develop their own vision. The people who marched with Dr. King 50 years ago were not marching to fulfill their leader’s vision. They were marching to fulfill their own.

Today, as we commemorate Dr. King’s contributions, we also inaugurate a president. This is a good day for America. I believe Dr. King would be humbled to know that his ability to inspire and share vision has helped Americans reach beyond broken habits of thought and elect talent and ability where found. Let us be ever mindful that the president is only one person yielding enormous power. Let us remember that leadership makes lasting change only when power is shared with others, never when it is held.And then, let us work together to use that power we share to rediscover our sense of focus, optimism and common purpose. Let us work together to make the world into the kind of place we need it to become.