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Business Lessons From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Like every other leader of a powerful movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has become a mythical feature of American history and widely renowned for a few short phrases and speeches. People put words, thoughts and hopes into his mouth. People speak on his behalf. Certainly, he is someone that not too many people (especially in politics) don’t want to be positively associated with.

While the “I have a dream” speech is iconic, “Letter from a Birmingham jail” is more powerful to me personally. It is a passionate display and defense of his way of thinking and operating. I was re-reading it today and thought I’d share an excerpt from it (full text available from the University of Pennsylvania):

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants — for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

Despite the obvious political and cultural ramifications of these actions, isn’t there an important business lesson in there somewhere? Tension is necessary for growth and crisis can prompt negotiation. I think that we get caught up in the idea that we can talk away all of the issues and problems we face. Direct action is sometimes the only thing that can prompt negotiations. When you don’t have the luxury of time or you’ve been waiting on a pile of broken promises, direct action is it.

Later on in the letter, King says “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’”. There is never an easy time to take action that will create tension and precipitate a crisis.

Obviously much of Dr. King’s work was outside the realm of business (as was needed) but make no mistake, there are gems of decisive leadership throughout much of his writing and speeches. I hope you can take a moment to sit down and read some of it on the holiday that honors his work.

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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