Martin Luther King: His enduring lessons 50 years on

Despite the many references I have already made to Martin Luther King over the years, now on the 50th anniversary of his death, I am moved to make yet another homage to a person whose ever-relevant life lessons have left an indelible mark on my own life. So immense was his influence on me that I keep on my desk a framed copy of "I Have a Dream", the famous speech he delivered at the Great March on Washington.

I believe that as business professionals, we would do well to take a careful, reflective look at what we can learn from these icons from the artistic, cultural, social and political world. I am pleasantly surprised at how the lessons they offer are applicable and relevant to many aspects of the contemporary world.

Reverend King sparked an authentic rebellion in the struggle for civil liberties, both in the United States and around the world. He instigated a movement which, in modern business terminology, brought about profound change in the business model. By breaking the rules of 'The Industry', he founded an inclusive movement which facilitated blacks and whites marching together to defend Black rights, marking the beginning of a new form of social struggle which considerably advanced the movement to abolish racial segregation. How many companies would love to find a value proposition in relation to their markets and clients that allows them to break completely with the industry status quo?

At the time, the value proposition took the form of incorporating new client segments, such as collectives of black pacifists, white abolitionists, ethnic minorities, etc., but it also excluded clients whose needs it did not wish to satisfy; namely, blacks who used violence. The proposition created a space for clients whose needs remained unattended, and, at the same time, excluded those who were not able to adapt to the business model. My own experience tells me that even today in companies, we generally do not define this segmentation clearly enough.

However, the essence of King's business model lies in the generation of new competencies and capacities in the abolitionist movement, the most important of which is the quest for alliances with whom to boost the enterprise: co-operation with numerous white families throughout the country and the involvement of associations which give value to the struggle, etc. How we would like to develop alliances within our companies which provide access to hitherto underserved niche markets and customers! For the actual militants of the movement, this means developing new competencies: A love for those who are different, self-responsibility, and the ability to collaborate, etc.

Martin Luther King calls on the necessity for a change in the attitude and behaviour of people; something which I believe is easily applicable to the business world. The main motor for social transformation is driven by the contribution made by individual members of the organisation. Reverend King loudly proclaims for all to hear that "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Each step towards justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle", and thus exhorting us to flee from conformity. In fact, King often encouraged us to persevere and be consistent in the quest for excellence. "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'"

By heeding his advice, collaboration and harmony with others takes on much deeper meaning and substance: "Your truth will increase the more you listen to the truth of others"; and, "We've learned to fly the air like birds, we've learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven't learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters." Upon analysing the day-to-day reality of our companies, we will see whether our daily praxis is centred round these two messages, which are at the end of the day, the only ways of building a shared project. "We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak."

These times of change and volatility in business show us that "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." We are also encouraged to find motivation for our organisations: "If you've got nothing worth dying for, you've got nothing worth living for."

Personally, I agree with Doctor King's evaluation of how our actions contribute to improving levels of justice and equality in society. Indeed, the movement which promotes spaces of co-creation where business adds value to society is more important than ever. This movement could easily take the following phrase as its epitaph: "We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to mankind."

As a leader, Martin Luther King showed us, without song and dance or histrionics, what our business leaders ought to hold up as sacrosanct in their professional management: being intellectually curious to feed the quest for uncharted roads, respecting and valuing the role of each and every one of the members of the organisation, and placing education at the centre of managerial practice. Furthermore, management needs to want to live the dream of a better project for everyone, promote co-operation amongst the whole team and maintain a commitment to society over that of material gain and, finally, persevere in our love for others.

I encourage you to follow the example and spirit of Doctor King in being passionate about work: "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."

Read the original article in El Economista (Spanish).

Sabin Azua

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