Allow Dr King to Inspire You to Lead With Your Best Self


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.  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

  • Dan,

    With all due respect, I think the line: “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” Is absolutely NOT true today!

    I think that statement sends the wrong message as well. This is not the 1950’s or 60’s, and black people (or African-American) in general are NOT less healthy, less safe, etc! It’s time people move on and don’t begin with a “woe-is-me” or “I-was-doomed-before-I-was-born” attitude. Dr. King did!

    • Linda,
      Thanks for your contribution. Race and diversity are often difficult conversations, and I applaud you for stepping in and speaking your mind.

      You have answered my conclusionary statement with a conclusionary statement of your own. I am hoping others will weigh in with some of the objective data that will help us look at this question and be honest with ourselves. The data I have seen on health status, environmental quality, and education — especially in cities, and especially in lower income neighborhoods (not always African American) — show substantial disparities. In my admittedly anecdotal experience mentoring and volunteering in city schools, the children there are substantially less advantaged than those in suburban schools. And the rates of imprisonment of African American men are terribly disturbing. If you have children I’d ask: would you be happy changing places with those who are currently trapped by income in poor, inner city schools?

      As a white man, I have moved away from early feelings I had that were defensive (or sometimes combative and aggressive) when I heard blacks express their hurt and anger about their feelings of being victimized. The causes are complicated and often subtle. I didn’t do it personally. But I know I benefit from subtle and deep forms of bias. As a white man I don’t think most people suspect me; police don’t; my peers don’t; my teachers didn’t. I don’t think the same thing can generally be said about my black counterparts. They face suspicion – and obstacles – often.

      I sense that you want us to get color blind, and I really do, too. But I think to get there we can’t close one eye and pretend that things are fair in America. Who is it — Chris Rock? — who asks, “would your average white person trade places with me?…And I’m rich!” That kind of question pierces to the heart of unfairness. Most of us if we were transported into a “poor black neighborhood” would be shocked at what it feels like and at the advantages we take for granted. That bothers me. I want the American dream to be real for all kids.

      Well, I ramble on. But again I so appreciate your candor in entering into the conversation. Hope you’ll continue to weigh in.


  • Nearly 30 years later – the message is timeless. Perhaps again we need to get this message out. Everyone is part of a team that makes a business run. How well each individual does there part is reflected in the outcome. Thanks for reminding us about his work and beliefs and strength. It would have been interesting to see what could have happened if he had been able to continue his work.

  • Dear Mr. Mulhern,

    I would like to add an historical gloss on this discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr. and, in so doing, hopefully raise what I consider to be a failure of mere ethical instruction. Namely, in addition to inspiring others to lead from their current roles in society, I think this message must be accompanied by the hope of leading a better life, materially and emotionally. In my opinion, this requires social mobilization and politics.

    First, the historical gloss. It is well known the Martin Luther King, Jr. drew many of his ideas about civil disobedience from Gandhi. The quotation that you selected from a speech of Dr. King’s could easily have been taken from any number of Gandhi’s discussions about Hinduism. For example, Gandhi stated,

    “ I do not advise untouchables to give up their trades and professions. One born a scavenger must earn his livelihood by being a scavenger and then do whatever else he likes. For a scavenger is as worthy of his hire as a lawyer or your president. That according to me is Hinduism. “( Harijan 6th March, 1937)

    Admittedly, King does not explicitly endorse the idea of caste in his quotation, while Gandhi does. Still, King’s speech, I am afraid, leads inexorably to the same conclusion that Gandhi’s does– that if you are born into a specific social status, you should accept that status and be a model member of that caste. E.g. if you can’t be a tree, be a bush.

    Let me put it more bluntly: King is suggesting to his largely black audience (although, I am sure this message comforted much of his white audience, too) that they go about their own business as “good blacks.”

    To further connect the politics of King to Gandhi, note that Gandhi, like King, also uses the word “sweeper” (the lowest caste in India) and opposes their political organization to fight for better wages from their municipalities:

    “Mr Bhagwan Das has referred this narrative many times how Gandhi was against the strike of the sweeper and every time he gave them moral lessons of Varna Ashram Dharma. That way, Gandhi damaged the cause of the emancipation of Dalits with his brutal immoral morality.” See Rawat, Vidya, India’s Shame, 2006,

    While I do not doubt the motives of either of these great men, their powerful philosophical movements foster a political disposition that accepts the status quo and fails to conceptualize a pragmatic political solution to the difficulties of social strife, such as racism, poverty, or caste. I worry that in counseling people with the quotations of Dr. King, that the message misses 50% of the solution and may chill people’s participation in on-the-ground politics or from participating in the existing majority-based political system since it counsels micro instead of macro thinking. (I am sure this is a constant theme encountered in spritual teaching- since we normally prefer to leave the messy business of politics to the politicians). Still, I think it needs to be raised.

    This comment does not suggest that the inspirational, almost divine, force of these teachings should be rejected. Rather, it suggests that this discourse is incomplete as applied to how we act in life. We can internalize the values, but externalize a political force consistent with these values.

    Finally, I find the theme of these quotations extremely pertinent to the on-going economic upheaval facing Michigan. How would Michiganders receive a speech today in which they were told, “accept your role in the economy and do a good job in it.” I think the better message would be something like, “be the best of whatever you are and never give up believing in and fighting for the world as you wish it to be.”


  • a correction:

    After re-reading your piece Dan, I have to admit that you did present good examples of political action informed by individual ethics (e.g. anti-Vietnam protest, need for action). I will still stand by my concern, however, for this particular quotation and its possible historical meaning. Also, I think it contradicts, even if subtly, the political message that precedes it.


  • For Linda, Dan and all,

    Here’s a link to the Kaiser family foundation which supports and develops health research and practices. This table shows U.S. mortality rates by race/ethnicity.

    You’ll see that in several states white people died at higher rates than blacks though in most states it’s the other way. Look at which states for example hawaii, alaska, nh. My hunch, based on no research, is that there are relatively few blacks in those states and something about why they moved or live there contributes to lower mortality.

    Your thoughts?

  • I like checking in later int he week to read the comments. These are good comments. I think there is nothing wrong with the quote Dan selected, since it does say “in our times,” meaning the 1960’s, and so it must be taken int that context. It is up to us to ask how much things have changed, and what is left to do. When I think of how more likely it is that a black man will spend time in jail, or in parts of this country where it is more difficult to find justice, or good health, or advanced education, or other things for minorities, I think the quote has value today as well as a piece of history. So often history is read and used as a source of wisdom, be it sacred writing, philosophy, literature, or just plain history. MLK’s words are all of these.

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