Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons Learned from the King

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me in Northern California, on conference calls, in meetings and of course, this past Monday, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a time taken each year to commemorate the life of a titan in leadership.

The story of Martin Luther King Jr. is a lesson in the perseverance of leaders. Did you know, as Darren Hardy pointed out in this inspiring video, in college, King received a C in public speaking?

Yes, the very thing King is best known for was exactly the topic he struggled with most in school. What changed? Well, he exercised persistence, passion and perseverance. Over the course of his 11-year career in civil activism, he traveled an estimated 6 million miles and delivered 2,500 speeches. At age 35, he was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. (An interesting fact that speaks to the character of this leader: When notified he had been selected, King publicly announced that he’d turn over the $54,123 in prize money to the civil rights movement.) He also has about 900 streets named after him today and is widely regarded as one of the greatest public speakers to ever live.

To understand how King made the dramatic transition from C-student in public speaking to world-famous orator, able to move proverbial mountains of prejudice with a single speech, we should travel back to Oct. 26, 1967, when King delivered a speech at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia. Tragically, the words he would utter to this group of students arrived just six months before he was assassinated but their resonance would endure, ringing true even to this day.

King addressed the students as the impressionable youth they were, understanding that like him, this was a critical, transformative time in their lives, when they could take whatever failures they encountered and turn them into unbelievable triumphs.

At the opening of the speech, King asked a single question: “What is your life’s blueprint?”

He explained: “When a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, and a building is not well-erected without a good, solid blueprint.”

He said that in their life blueprint, the students should put two things:

  1. A deep belief in their own dignity, worth and “somebodiness.” He said, “Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”
  2. The determination to achieve excellence in whatever their life’s work turns out to be. King quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously said: “If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

King told the students to study hard—“burn the midnight oil”—and when they discover their life’s purpose, they shouldn’t just set out to do a good job. Instead, he said, “Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.”

For King, realizing your “life’s work” wasn’t about becoming rich and famous, building the tallest building or owning the largest house. He said even if your life’s work is to become 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.”

So, what’s the message? In this short speech, delivered during the very last months of King’s life, the philosophy he implored his listeners to follow was one that allowed King to speak so powerfully on that very stage. As you build your own life’s blueprint, if you strive to become the very best at whatever it is you do, the world will reward you in kind, and you’ll forever be the architect of your own greatness. As King said to end his plea to the students in Philadelphia, “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.”

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