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MLK's Leadership Lessons for Us All

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This weekend, millions of Americans served their communities and made commitments to volunteer to make a difference in their communities and for the causes they care about over the next year as part of the Inauguration's National Day of Service. Commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, his quote, "Everybody can be great because anybody can serve," was present at many events, including ours at Public Allies. A better statement of his legacy, however, might be: "Everybody can be great because anybody can lead."

Dr. King was a transformational leader who inspired a movement and changed our nation. When we learn about a leader like Dr. King, it can be daunting. We might think it takes the immense abilities of Dr. King to make a difference. But when we dig a little deeper into two of the milestone moments of the Civil Rights movement, we learn leadership lessons that can inspire us all to step up.

When Rosa Parks refused to sit on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she was not just a tired seamstress, but a volunteer leader with the local NAACP chapter who had learned civil disobedience at the Highlander School in Tennessee. When Ms. Parks was arrested, the local NAACP leader E.D. Nixon contacted civil rights pioneer A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). Nixon realized that the arrest represented an opportunity to mobilize the black community in Montgomery. He worked with the Women's Political Council, led by Jo Ann Robinson, who had the idea for the boycott and with Ms. Parks' permission stayed up all night copying 35,000 handbills to promote it. As the boycott grew from a one-day action to a campaign, Nixon and others chose Dr. Martin Luther King to lead the effort because of his eloquence, youth (he was 26 years old!), and recent arrival in town (he had been there less than a year). They believed that if the effort failed, he could pack up and leave.

By this time, Nixon had the help of the master organizers Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levinson, who created a group called "In Trust" to support the Montgomery effort and link it to other Southern organizing efforts, and Baker took Parks on a fundraising tour of the Northeast. Recognizing Dr. King's immense talents, these organizers built the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) to create a base for his leadership. Just as critical to the boycott's success were the daily acts of courage and sacrifice by thousands of citizens who spread the word and led by example and influence. In fact, when some of the movement leaders considered ending the boycott, it was the black citizens of Montgomery who led their leaders, refusing to compromise until they won. Ms. Parks' heroic act was an essential spark, but that spark led to change because of the leadership of citizens at many levels including the young Dr. King.

We often read Dr. King's transformative "I Have a Dream" speech, but fail to reflect on how the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom happened. A. Philip Randolph proposed the march and to organize it selected master organizer Bayard Rustin. Rustin pulled together, for the first time, an alphabet soup coalition of civil rights groups including the BSCP, NAACP, CORE, SNCC, SCLC and the National Urban League. The United Auto Workers and Jewish, Catholic and Protestant civil rights groups soon stepped up as well. This coalescing effort was not easy; Dr. King was ironically the last hold-out. And Rustin was not the obvious leader for this coalition. He was an openly gay man, pacifist, and had been conscientious objector to World War II. The coalition wondered if his background would harm the effort, but kept him because of his unique organizational brilliance and trusting relationships at each organization.

They set a goal of 100,000 marchers and had only seven weeks to pull all the logistics together -- mobilizing leaders throughout the North and South to organize marchers, arrange transportation, and coordinate food, water, sanitation, nurses, and housing during Washington's punishing August heat. At the time, reports by The New York Times, Life, and other media marveled at how this voluntary network with very little capacity or resources could possibly pull it off. Rustin's decades of experience building grass roots leaders paid off. The event, which included Dr. King's nationally televised speech, was a huge success and greatly influenced the passage of civil rights legislation. The eloquent vision of Dr. King was witnessed by over 200,000 people on the mall and millions on television because of the facilitative leadership of Rustin and his team supported by thousands of leaders across the country who influenced and mobilized neighbors, friends, and group members to step up and participate.

Dr. Charles McKinney, a civil rights historian at Rhodes College, sums up the true leadership lesson these stories inspire: "When we elevate leaders of particular movements to the mythic status of great man or woman, we do a disservice to everyone. By placing people on a historical pedestal, we forget that they grew, learned, made mistakes, and struggled throughout the tenure of their leadership, and we forget that these leaders were mentored, collaborated with other leaders, and had to get their followers to believe in their own capacity to step up and lead. Hero-worship relegates the work, thought, and effort of 'ordinary people' to something akin to pleasant background music. Local agents for change and progress lose their voice, and are mercilessly converted into mindless, thoughtless followers of the great man or woman who 'leads' them. In this frequently zero-sum game, all parties are diminished. In order for us to understand and build on this history, we must honor the true leadership paradigm where leaders at all levels - those few who get recognized and the countless others who contribute silently - are necessary for change."

Recognizing this does not diminish Dr. King's genius as a visionary and transformational leader. It just recognizes that social change has always come from the leadership of the many and that includes us. Leadership is an action, not a position. It is something we can all do.

So yes, serve on this special Martin Luther King Day of Service holiday weekend, but more importantly commit to what you can do as a leader to step up in your home, in your community, and on the causes you care about. Maybe it is making choices as a consumer that align better with your values and influencing others to do the same. Maybe it is volunteering with a nonprofit, school, or AmeriCorps program in your community. Maybe it is attending public meetings and writing your legislators about injustices you care about. There are many ways to make a difference - the important thing is that you do step up to make a difference. That is what our democracy requires.

As Dr. King eloquently stated: "We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action." In other words, on the causes you believe in passionately, step up today!

This article includes excerpts from my book, "Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up."