How to Lead More Like Dr. King

In August 1963, nearly 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Little did they know that they would hear one of the most recognized addresses in modern history.

Today, I want to look at that iconic speech through a slightly new lens.

If you watch the newsreel of the speech, you’ll see Dr. King starts his speech by describing current reality. The news cameras show us a sea of faces, and though they’re listening to his words, it’s clear that there’s very little expression or stirring among the crowd.

But then Dr. King turns the conversation and starts to get into the “meat” of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

He puts his notes down.

He looks at the audience and begins speaking from his head and his heart about a reality that’s still to come. And while we were nowhere near that reality at the time, he believed wholeheartedly in the vision he was describing.

The news cameras pan across the crowd again — and now we see that people are riveted.

We see a sea of people, young and old alike, hanging on what he’s saying because of the power and conviction with which he says it.

Dr. King was driving home a message that seemed wildly untrue at the time. But he believed so fully in his vision for the future that he was inviting all sorts of people into that possibility — people who probably never would’ve gotten there on their own.

To me, this is one of the clearest examples of someone standing in their personhood and using it to lead and inspire others.

Excellence is About Leaning into Your Personhood

I think it’s easy to size up ourselves and others based on achievements, accolades, one-hit wonders or even failures. But is this how we would sum up Dr. King? Was he only the things he did (or didn’t do) well? I’d argue not.

Personhood is about our individuality, it’s about understanding our own stories and how they have contributed to who we are and the lens we look through to understand what we see around us. By engaging in the intentional journey of understanding the story of yourself, you can free yourself up to learn and develop and envision a better future.

For leaders, the future we envision may include our pursuit of excellence for ourselves and for our teams. And if we’re engaged in this pursuit, we see it not as a fixed destination but rather about striving and leaning in with focus and purpose.

Excellence is about who you are.

Where Personhood and Excellence Show up in Leadership

Looking at Dr. King’s example, leaders are called to follow a similar path: to invite people into a reality they couldn’t have seen otherwise. To stand at the front of people and cast a vision that calls up the very best in each person on your team.

Excellence is also about a lot of little things as well.

As a leader, it’s your job to commit to excellence in the big events, and also in every conversation along the way.

As a leader in your organization, how are you intentionally shaping your personhood? What are the thoughts, feelings and beliefs about yourself and others that guide and inform how you see yourself and how people experience you?

How Personhood Influences Your Vision

I remember standing on our church’s sanctuary stage as a young person while my mother cleaned the building each week. I would pretend I was preaching or doing any number of things.

As I grew older, I realized that standing on the stage of that church was probably not going to be possible for me. But now through the course of my life, I’m speaking in public regularly, sharing truths with people and helping them be the best version of themselves.

Looking back now, I can see clearly that purpose and vision were born in me when I didn’t even know it could be possible or how it would come out.

Sometimes your vision and purpose, even when rooted in your personhood, can be a long time coming.

You may not know where your life or talents are leading, but if you have a sense of who you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to offer, then you can move forward and see where the path takes you.

Cultivating Personhood in Your Life and Leadership

Your inner life matters, whether or not you operate in an executive office. So start where you are today by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do I believe in a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?
  • Do you believe that life is as good as it can get, or do you desire to do more and be more?
  • Do I have a clear understanding of how people experience me?
  • Is your inner life tended to with intentionality? Are you a person who is inspiring and uplifting others?
  • Do I understand the critical components of my past that inform who I am and how I lead today? Have you taken the time to explore your childhood family dynamics, your birth order and foundational life events that impacted you?

If you’re interested in exploring the idea of personhood more deeply, I invite you to take advantage of our Life Plan Guide. It’s a free tool that can help kickstart your exploration of personhood and purpose in the context of your life and leadership.


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