Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Day in the United States. We could move in fifty directions to explore the leadership ground that Dr. King laid out for us, but I want to explore one part of that territory. I always finish this e-column with the line “Lead with your best self.” That line is supremely King-ian. For Dr. King was all about the determination to lead with your best self.
We know Martin Luther King as one who acted — he embodied love seeking justice. He was a pillar of courage, clearly knowing that his actions of civil but strategic defiance put his life in danger. With his life and his words he continues to speak to us, especially in our times, where being born black in America generally means being born less healthy, less safe, less supported by community resources, and more likely to be suspect in way too many ways. Conscience still calls us to work so every child has a shot at the promise of opportunity in America. All Lives Matter, but too often we have to reiterate: Black Lives Matter.
Dr. King spoke of racism. And he was bold, too, when it came to the war in Vietnam, speaking out, even when many in the movement wanted him to not get entangled. But he felt the moral force within, and he let it lead him. His words pierce right to our tentative hearts: “Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in times of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.”* Are we listening in the place of courage — beneath “the apathy of conformist thought’ in our conscience and our own hearts?” Wow, what a challenge.
Dr. King spoke so eloquently about what I call “everyday leadership.” So, let me close with his wonderful words:
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.
“Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.
If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail.
If you can’t be a sun, be a star.
For it isn’t by size that you win or fail.
Be the best of whatever you are.”**
On this day of Dr. King, find your conscience and
Lead with your best self,
*”Beyond Vietnam,” a speech delivered at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967.
** From Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Â From a speech he delivered six months before he was assassinated, to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on October 26, 1967.
This post was originally published in 2007