7 Leadership Lessons From MLK Jr. #MLKDay

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

Martin Luther King Jr. (1960)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often referred to as one of the most influential people in American History. The above quote (from The Three Dimensions of A Complete Life 1) embodies a choice every one must make in their own life journey… specifically a choice to work to the benefit of others (the metamessage for Dr. King’s life). His efforts have been analyzed and publicized by those seeking to, justifiably, replicate his success and impact. 
In my effort to explore what we can learn from Dr. King’s leadership, I chose to look at what others had to say about him… starting with a Google search “Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King” which will yield thousands of results, I reviewed of a small fraction (see selected sources below) and found the following traits, or characteristics, emerge:

NOTE: Larger fonts represent a higher frequency of use and impact in my findings.

Upon deeper review it became clear that the subjective writings on Dr. King’s leadership teach us that good leadership is about :

  1. Empowering others, particularly those whose voice is not heard.
  2. Disrupting an unjust, ugly status quo.
  3. Remaining truthful to your values.
  4. Communicate to build relationships as well as to articulate your goals, even when they are unpopular.
  5. Bravely accept the unknown while seeking the possible.
  6. Opportunistically looking for ways to use what is to realize what could be.

To be fair these were the thoughts and insights of others about Dr. King’s work rather than a first hand review of his speeches and writings (such a primary source study is a worthy, yet vast, undertaking). Adding my own insights to this list (#7), and perhaps overlapping some of the lessons, Dr. King taught us about choosing to be altruistic. Meaning, it is not within our nature to be truly altruistic (perhaps inciting a philosophical debate here) but 

  1. It is within our individual capacity to work for a greater good, not only for others, but for a better future that we may not see, but future generations will reap the benefits from. 

I have no doubt Dr. King’s legacy will continue to inspire for generations to come. I hope that future interpretations of his work recognize his example of creative altruism.


(1) King, M.L. The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life. (1960) Free Online Video. (2017, September 29). Learnoutloud.com. https://www.learnoutloud.com/Free-Audio-Video/History/Speeches/The-Three-Dimensions-of-a-Complete-Life/90594 Accessed 16 Jan. 2022.

Selected MLK Sources

Banks, B. (2021, January 18). “People fail because they fear each other”: 9 life and leadership lessons from Martin Luther King Jr. CNBC; CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/18/martin-luther-king-jr-life-leadership-lessons.html

Bridges, F. (2019, January 22). Five Leadership Lessons From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/francesbridges/2019/01/21/5-leadership-lessons-from-dr-martin-luther-king-jr/?sh=16ec28eb279f

4 Leadership Lessons We Can Learn from Martin Luther King Jr. – Level Up Coaching Solutions. (2016, January 15). Level up Coaching Solutions. https://levelupoutcomes.com/4-leadership-lessons-we-can-learn-from-martin-luther-king-jr/

Gauss, A. (2017, January 13). 4 Leadership Lessons From Martin Luther King Jr. and Other Greats. Classy. https://www.classy.org/blog/4-leadership-lessons-martin-luther-king-jr/

Hyatt, M.  (2010, January 18).  Eight Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr. https://michaelhyatt.com/eight-leadership-lessons-from-martin-luther-king-jr/

Schoemaker, P. (2015, February 27). 6 Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr. Inc.com; Inc. https://www.inc.com/paul-schoemaker/6-leadership-lessons-martin-luther-king.html

Toren, A. (2020, January 20). 3 Important Leadership Lessons From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Entrepreneur; Entrepreneur. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/230958

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