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.