Insights | By Howard Tiersky
I HAVE A DREAM! WHAT MLK CAN TEACH DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION LEADERS ABOUT INSPIRING PEOPLE
Martin Luther King, Jr. was an incredibly gifted leader and orator. We can all look to him as an inspiration as we lead our companies through the transformation that it takes to be successful in today's digital world.
Dr. King was not focused on business transformation, but on the more important kind of change to achieve civil rights, racial equality and a more just society overall.
But by looking at his I Have a Dream speech which he gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, we can learn so much in terms of the albeit more prosaic business-oriented transformations that we're all trying to drive.
There are nine things we can learn from Dr. King’s speech that can influence our mindsets when it comes to leading large-scale transformations.
HE BEGINS WITH HOPE
Martin Luther King Jr. begins his famous speech by talking about Abraham Lincoln and how the Emancipation Proclamation was a beacon of light. He said, “This momentous decree came as a great beacon of light and hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared into flames of withering injustice.”
People are often concerned when you propose large-scale change, so he started by reminding people that great things have been done in the past.
You probably have an example you could share to remind everybody of a great transformation that has been accomplished within the history of your own company, to help drive inspiration among your team.
HE PAINTS A PICTURE OF WHAT IS UNACCEPTABLE
Lincoln’s Emanication Proclimation freed the slaves, and that was a source of great hope. Dr. King famously said, “But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
He's clearly stating that where we are now is still unacceptable, and that is very important to acknowledge and remember. Dr. King’s speech created a burning platform for change, and inspired many to fight for civil rights.
If you're going to drive transformation within your company, you too will need a burning platform. Be very clear about what's wrong today and why your organization needs to change.
HE USES A BIT OF HUMOR
Marting Luther King Jr. famously said, “Instead of honoring the sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check. A check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the Bank of Justice is bankrupt.”
No matter how serious your topic, a little bit of humor can be valuable because it relaxes people and makes them more receptive to your message.
That same principle can be applied to a digital transformation at a large company.
HE TALKS ABOUT URGENCY
Dr. King said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
He made the point that this transformation needed to happen right away.
When a big change needs to occur, it may be appealing to wait a little while to get started. There may be a lot of reasons why you would consider waiting to start a large-scale transformation in your company, but in many cases, you can benefit from starting now.
HE ALLAYS FEARS
Martin Luther King Jr. told his audience that bad things were going to happen if they didn't make the necessary changes.
Then he pointed out his nonviolent philosophy. He said, “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
You probably don't need to advise your audience in the boardroom to avoid becoming violent. But you want to consider the things that your audience might be fearful about as you just laid out why change is so essential.
Consider asking yourself, are there any things that you can allay without undermining the strength of your argument to drive change?
HE OPENS THE TENT
Dr. King makes the point that he doesn't want to distrust all white people and many of his other allies. He said: “…for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound, inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
Any time you're trying to drive change, you want to make people feel that they have a place in it, and that it’s not an us versus them situation.
If you need people within your company to transform their behavior in order to support the change you’re driving, then you need to show them how they can be an important part of this transformation.
HE GETS SPECIFIC
Dr. King said, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
He shared stories of not being permitted to get a hotel room, about children being stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity, and about the fact that black people did not have the right to vote in many parts of the South.
King shared many specific examples about why change is absolutely necessary. You can apply that lesson to the transformation you’re working towards in your company as well.
HE CREATES A STRONG SLOGAN
In the I Have a Dream speech, Dr. King goes on to the most famous part of the speech, where he says the famous quote, “I have a dream”.
First of all, I would say he had a very strong slogan that sent a very clear message.
He created a rhetorical device with that part of his speech that people remember to this day. If you have a transformation program in the works, give it a name that people can connect to, and easily remember.
HE ENVISIONS THE FUTURE
Dr. King didn’t just say that we needed equality and civil rights. He didn't simply leave it an abstraction.
He said, “…one day on the Red Hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“…my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Through these powerful words, Martin Luther King Jr. described a specific vision of the future, which is also something that you can picture.
That's a very powerful method because you want people to have that sense of what they're working towards, and what the end goal is, and what that could look like.
As a transformational leader in business, you can apply that same technique to the transformation you are working towards.
At the end of his I Have a Dream speech, Dr. King concludes by connecting all that he shared back to the fact that this isn't just something for black people, but for everybody else as well.
When trying to drive change, show how what you are proposing benefits everybody—customers, employees, top management, the board of directors, and investors.
This is a positive ecosystem of change you're creating, and there’s something to benefit everyone within the company.
I want to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was an amazing and inspiring pastor, civil rights leader, and even a martyr. who was born on January 15. I think his words are a great source of inspiration to each and every one of us today, tomorrow, and in the future.
I encourage everyone to read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 's I Have a Dream speech. It’s an extremely powerful and inspiring piece. You can access the full transcript of the speech here.
My Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Winning Digital Customers: The Antidote to Irrelevance, contains a blueprint for developing a successful strategy for your company as well as practices to aid in identifying new trends and opportunities to explore. You can download the first chapter for free here or purchase the book here.