01/17/2011 11:21 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

MLK Day: What Martin Luther King, Jr. Taught Us About Working Around Life's Obstacles

With the combination of fear, violence and mean-spirited rhetoric arising from the tragedy in Arizona, it is ironic, if perfect timing, that today would be Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Dr. King inspired many in this country to imagine a world where freedom, brotherhood and equality were the commonplace texture of relationships, discourse and societal interactions. He encouraged us not only to dream but to act on those dreams. His inspiration and actions serve as a reminder that no matter the situation or the odds, there are still steps you can take to make a difference, to find a way to overcome what's in the way, to work around the numerous obstacles.

We all know his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., that summer's day, Aug. 28, 1963. Excerpted from that stirring moment are these powerful words, equally as relevant today as they were in 1963:

I have a dream today. ... With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Clearly, we still have jangling discords that are tearing away at our social fabric. Racism has not gone away, and people continue to bring violence toward one another. What many of us may not know, however, is Dr. King's deeply held conviction that we are all connected, that what one of us suffers impinges on the well-being of another. As he said in his Commencement address to Oberlin College in June 1965:

All I'm saying is simply this: that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

Martin Luther King not only taught us that dreams require commitment in order to come true, but that if freedom is the outcome, love is the way. He did not preach of a love found in the safety of our homes but of a love demonstrated in active engagement with the world. His was not a love that you could earn but a love born of the realization that without love, there would be no life. In a sermon entitled "Strength to Love," delivered in 1963, he said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. ... The chain reaction of evil -- hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars -- must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

(As perfect timing would have it, Marci Shimoff has a new bestselling book out, "Love for No Reason." While the book delves into the personal and transformational side of love, it strikes me as something we could well marry with the inspiration of Martin Luther King and perhaps rise to another level of interconnection between people.)

Lessons We Can All Apply to Overcome What Stands in Our Way

In many ways my new book, "Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work," was inspired by the commitment and courage of Martin Luther King, Jr. I walked many a strike line at Berkeley and San Francisco State, ate my share of tear gas, and came to my own awakening that "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Eldridge Cleaver made that quote famous at the same time that Dr. King was daring us to dream.

From those days of social strife and cultural change, I learned several powerful strategies to help one overcome whatever might be preventing him or her from moving ahead in life. Those lessons and strategies have become integral to how I live my own life and to the work I have done for four decades now helping people create the lives they want rather than the lives they settle for.

The advice contained in my book had its earliest roots in the influence of Dr. King, and the advice applies equally well to your personal life as to life on the job. There are three key principles in creating workarounds that work: intention, accountability and response-ability.

The "I Have a Dream" speech is a riveting example of holding a clear intention and a strong focus on a desired outcome. Without a clear vision of where you are heading, how can you possibly choose a path forward?

However, vision without commitment is hardly a dream worth dreaming. Dr. King not only had a powerful intention made clear in his "Dream" speech, but he also demonstrated a profound willingness to be accountable. Accountability in this instance does not have anything to do with blame or fault; rather, Dr. King's advocated a kind of accountability that I call one's willingness to own the outcome. Indeed, he demonstrated an unwavering commitment to own the outcome of peace and freedom reflected in his dream.

Response-ability is the simple yet sometimes evasive element that enables the dream to come true. In any situation requiring change, there are multiple options (responses) from which you might choose coupled with differentiated abilities you might possess to exercise those responses. Dr. King did not have what I call a "perfectionally correct" choice available, one that would easily and effortlessly produce the desired outcome. He did, however, have a "directionally correct" choice available.

My favorite workaround question is so clearly highlighted by the choices Dr. King made repeatedly: what can you do that would make a difference that requires no one's permission other than your own? While he did not have a perfect choice available, he did exercise what limited control he did have: he held strong to his values, nourished his dream and took those non-violent steps available to him. He clearly understood that by doing what he could, no matter how apparently small and inconsequential the step, he would be encouraging others to take whatever small steps they might have available, as well.

By controlling what he could and demonstrating his willingness to remain actively involved in making his dream a reality, Dr. King influenced first a small band of followers, and eventually an entire nation, to move forward.

By learning from Dr. King and applying his courage to your own life, you can, indeed, make a difference. Perhaps the difference you can make will rise to the level of consequence that Dr. King was able to put into motion for a nation. For most, the difference you can make will be in the quality of your own life. Hold the intention to do so, own the outcome you seek, and do what you can to make that difference. From there, you may be able to influence others to make similar improvements, as well. As Dr. King said in Oberlin, "Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

Please leave a comment here, or drop me an e-mail to let me know your experience.


If you would like a free chapter of Russell's new book, "Workaround That Work: How To Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way At Work," click here.

If you would like to hear him speak on the subject of "Workarounds That Work," join him in Santa Monica on Jan. 26, 2011 for a combination speech and interactive workshop. Click here for more information.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. His new book, "Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work," is now available in bookstores and online. You can find out more about Russell at You can also download a free chapter of his new book by going to and clicking "Download a free chapter." Contact Russell by e-mail at