The desire to impart a lofty and profound meditation when memorializing a great leader. I fall prey to that very temptation from time to time.
This year I want to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. a little differently. I want to share a small insight into his real experiences as a person––as a man.
I am often deeply moved by the most ordinary aspects of the human experience––especially when I see something that humanizes a great leader. When I visited the MLK library in Atlanta, I was nearly moved to tears when I saw a simple display of the clothes Dr. King would wear when he thought he had a good chance of being arrested.
His traveling kit consisted of a small suitcase where he would carry his toiletries, very few spare clothes, his current papers and usually a book or two––very often something to do with Ghandi.
His clothes were simple Wrangler jeans, a jeans jacket, work shirt and boots. He could have been dressing to go to work in the mill, on the farm or at the corner garage. What struck me so deeply was that he could have taken these simple clothes from my own closet. Like me––he was a human being––a man.
The power of a leader like Dr. King is not really in his soaring oratory, as gifted as he was in that respect. It is in his willingness to participate in the same struggle as those who trusted in his leadership. It was not his ability to rise above us that makes him a great leader––it is his commitment to walking with us.
And in many ways he still does.
I returned to Atlanta last year to do a workshop. This time I visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights––a must see stop when you visit. They have a tremendously moving exhibition of the civil rights movement and of course, Dr. King is prominent in that display. In a darkened part of the exhibit, you’ll see a set of prison bars. Behind it is a life size rendering of the famous picture of Dr. King in a moment of deep reflection as he sat in Birmingham Jail drafting the famous “Letter.”
For some reason I started thinking about times when I was isolated and had time for deep, uninterrupted reflection. In a busy life, these moments can be rare. Maybe jail provided one of the few opportunities for Dr. King to escape the incredible demands placed on him and simply––reflect.
The more I learned about Dr. King the more I came to understand that like most of us, he did indeed face this challenge. How could he find time for the important work of simply thinking while still performing all the duties necessary to his role––and within a schedule that most of us would find impossible?
One of the greatest deficiencies identified by leaders today is a lack of self-awareness. Genuine self-awareness is a discipline that requires a serious commitment of time. Exactly how does one get the time for introspection while still fulfilling all one’s obligations and honoring one’s responsibilities to others? Time for reflection is not a luxury. It must be one of your highest priorities. Without it you will at best be less effective. At worst––it can kill you. Dr. King certainly recognized this paradox:
I decided I would take one day a week as a day of silence and meditation.
Like most of us, he found that was easier said than done! This I attempted on several occaissions, but things began to pile up so much that I found myself using that particular day as a time to catch up on so many things that I had accumulated.
He knew this was not healthy…
I knew that I could not continue to live with such a tension-filled schedule.
And he knew that unless he took care of his own need for self-reflection and restorative contemplation, that we would actually be letting down the people who counted on him…
My whole life seemed to be centered around giving something out and only rarely taking something in. My failure to reflect would do harm not only to me as a person, but to the total movement. For that reason I felt a moral obligation to do it.
And so should we. Each of us.
One of the few things I insist upon at each of my events is that leaders dedicate specific time in their schedules for personal reflection and introspection. This can be one day a year, or like Dr. King, one day a week––but it must be disciplined.
Some argue that they simply can’t take time away from their duties. They’re just too busy and if they take this time they’ll be letting others down.
Far from it. Far from a selfish act, time in reflection is a positive act of self-improvement. Self-improvement is the least selfish thing you can do as a leader. As you improve yourself, you become a greater resource to the people you serve––the people who trust you and depend on your leadership.
This may not be the most electrifying lesson left to us by Dr. King, but is absolutely one of the most important. With all the enormous pressures on him, Dr. King realized that unless he could find time for serious reflection, he would be of no use to anyone.
Start with just one day. Take the time you need to think––to reflect seriously on who you are as a leader and as a person. Use this time to think about who you want to become in the future.
And of course, think deeply about how you can best serve the people who trust in your leadership.
Dr. King's quotations are from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Claybourne Carson.