An ancient Chinese proverb entreats us to live in interesting times. It seems a redundant rhetoric, for surely few among us can remember uninteresting times in our lives and in our framework of history. There is always a happening, an event, a turmoil that enrages us or engages us, however it impels us to thought or action.
Some of us remember the onset of the fight for Civil Rights, the marches for peace and brotherhood, and the inequality that defined an era. Others have the stories and experiences of our forbears, while some know only what is written in history books to define a time when leadership was forged in steel, created and tested in the blood, sweat, and tears of many. Amazingly, this struggle gains new relevance and strength in our continuing quest for knowledge and self-awareness. Against our present backdrop of war, political upheaval, and economic uncertainty, the leadership teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are particularly prescient, and in some ways are more pertinent than ever.
Dr. King referred to the conflict of creation (leading by example) versus competition (being the example) as the ‘Drum Major Instinct’. It represents a desire for recognition as reward, a will to ‘lead the band’ by taking center stage and being the star attraction. He readily admits it is human nature. Yet it is not in his nature to scold us, for he admits to having lived in the glass house of self-importance. He reminds us that we have all lived in a glass palace at some point, if not still, so it is not for any among us to throw stones. Rather, he speaks to us as one who has overcome the need for acknowledgement, one who will gladly help us out of our self-imposed exiles of imagined celebrity and rapturous ignorance of believed importance. He becomes, then, a servant leader. He becomes an emissary, an envoy into greater human potential and leadership capability, bringing us beyond seeing only ourselves, challenging us to listen and learn. He begs us all to share the dream of ‘self-importance through awareness of others’, allowing others to see the vision and share a dream.
The Bible imparts the following: ‘No greater love hath man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ How much more difficult it must be to do so knowingly, willingly, even gladly, to protect and nurture a dream that has consumed boundless time and personal energy. Whether or not you espouse the Bible’s teachings, those words are a powerful and gripping truth. Dr. King laid down his life to improve the lives of others, to lead others. Who among us would do the same?
And yet we are all leaders, whether in title, by example, through military service, or by aspiration. Few in our midst, unless we are in the military, have been called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, and certainly we are not asked to do so in our current positions and jobs. But Dr. King, in laying down his life, showed that true, meaningful leadership exists, in fact, flourishes in all of us by virtue of the fact the we do not have to give our lives, but only share our vision. We become exemplary leaders by lifting the spirits of those around us. Dr. King, in his surrender to a destiny of strength through giving, reminds us, implores us, to lead through servitude to others.
But what cost if we fail to heed his advice? What cost if we fail to give ourselves completely to a goal that impels us to walk quietly behind those we hope to lead, giving them the spotlight instead of ourselves? If we learn nothing, all is lost. No one is led, and we are no stronger for the experience. Thankfully, we can be delivered from this fate. We still encounter hatred and prejudice, but we are free, in fact, encouraged to speak against them. Fortunately, we are free to aim high without having to project our dreams above blinding ignorance, or shout our hopes against deafening silence. While it is almost unimaginable to us to relinquish the spotlight, by surrendering ourselves to the ultimate gift of servitude, we become our best selves by allowing and encouraging others to shine. It costs far less when we inspire others to build and dream with us, to create interesting times. As leaders, we are not asked to lay down our lives, but to put aside ego and self-importance to help others realize a vision. We forfeit far less when we create an economy of hope, equality, and a single-minded passion to serve.