As our nation looks to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day on Monday, January 18, we are reminded of a leader who encountered great adversity without compromising his beliefs. A civil rights activist and the youngest male Nobel Peace Prize winner, King’s style of leadership is a reflection of how we should lead in the midst of injustice and uncertainty.
There is no doubt that King withstood great opposition while fighting for the rights of African Americans. But, he didn’t let those circumstances define how he approached civil disobedience and he never caved to the pressure around him.
Here are three leadership examples we can glean from King on this MLK Day.
King led with resilience. On April 12, 1963, King and 50 other protesters were arrested after leading a Good Friday demonstration (a part of the Birmingham Campaign) with a desire to bring national attention to the brutal racism many faced in one of America’s most segregated cities. King received criticism for his actions, particularly from religious leaders in Birmingham.
While in prison, King defended his actions of civil disobedience by penning a letter. In it he wrote, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Although he was met with opposition, even from individuals of his own faith, King continued to press on toward fighting for equality and human rights for African Americans.
King lived daringly for the sake of others. King was known to be the driving force behind key events – the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington – that would help bring about landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He lived boldly so others could have the right to certain freedoms they were once promised.
In his book “Strength to Love,” King wrote, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.” King was willing to take risks, even if it meant that he had to step outside of his comfort zone.
King didn’t compromise his beliefs and values in the midst of adversity. Despite being imprisoned nearly 30 times and surviving an assassination attempt in 1958, King never stopped fighting for the rights of others. A few days after the 1958 assassination attempt, King said, “The experience of these last few days has deepened my faith in the relevance of the spirit of nonviolence, if necessary social change is peacefully to take place.”
In a previous attempt on his life, when his house was bombed in Montgomery in 1956, King reminded his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that leadership can come at a cost.
Using the story of the Good Samaritan, King said, “The question of the Samaritan was[:] What will happen to this man if I [don't] stop to help him. Ultimately the thing that determines whether a man is a Christian is how he answers this question.” He concluded with saying, “Taking up the cross is the voluntary or deliberate choice of putting ourselves without reservation at the service of Christ and his kingdom; it is putting our whole being in the struggle against evil, whatever the cost.”
When we look to celebrate MLK Day this year, let’s not pass it by as another federal holiday. Rather, let’s be reminded of the leadership principles we can learn from King’s life. King often pointed to the significance of acting in response to serving others. To an audience in Montgomery in 1957, King asked, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?’”
Our nation is still dealing with the prejudices and racial injustices that King confronted. There is no better time to follow his example than today. Are we willing to live boldly for the future of America?
Dr. Kent Ingle serves as the president of Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, one of the fastest growing private universities in the nation. A champion of innovative educational design, Ingle is the author of "Framework Leadership.'' As president of Southeastern University, Ingle founded the American Center for Political Leadership and is also a founding member of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. Before becoming Southeastern's president in 2011, Ingle held leadership positions in higher education and in the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle. Ingle is the author of several leadership books and the creator of the Framework Leadership podcast. He currently serves on the board of the Florida Chamber Foundation. Read Kent Ingle's Reports — More Here.
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