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On transformation, leadership and selflessness | Christopher O.H. Williams

On transformation, leadership and selflessness

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On April 3, 1968, just 31 hours before his assassination, the American civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. spoke prophetically about perhaps not reaching the promised land himself, even as he inspired and assured his flock that they would surely realize this goal.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

The life and death of Martin Luther King are replete with all sorts of lessons, and his speeches are extensive curricula in themselves (The mountain top speech has always resonated with me). Here was a 39 year old husband and father who, by courageous choice, was staring down the social and political establishment of the most powerful country on the planet. Not surprisingly, he was buffeted continually by intense resistance and opposition, including repeated threats on his life. And on this rainy April day, looking tired and distracted, he publicly acknowledged that the forces he faced were deadly and would very likely take his life – opening up to an audience about the horrific fear that he had been living with daily. But still, his message, commitment and resolve did not waver. He turned out to be correct in his prediction, not only of his sad and brutal killing the very next day, but also of the eventual transformation process that the American civil rights movement unleashed in the United States and, I must add, across the world. What an example of leadership!

The simple truth is that every status quo, no matter how dysfunctional, has its staunch defenders and beneficiaries. When radical change happens, or when its time comes, it needs or seeks a leader, the one soul who not only believes in a better tomorrow but also gives them self completely to it.

Keepers of the status quo never cede to change without a fight – too much of their identity and survival is tied to incumbency and they are sometimes wont to nasty (or to brutal) response, seeking no less than the sidetracking, silencing or destruction of the change agent.

Yes, driving transformation is not for the meek or for the fickle or irresolute. It is sometimes turned into a blood sport (sadly). Which is why the status quo often persists – not too many want to pay the price for its replacement – the price of selflessness and the risk or certainty of self-sacrifice for the cause.

King came from a special ilk, of many other personalities from social movements in the USA and elsewhere, who have sought, agitated for and brought about tremendous social transformation, often at great personal cost.

But even absent threats of violence or death (of the sort that King and others have dealt with), if one believes in change, one must be prepared to endure indignity, or worse, for it.

Perhaps, they don’t make leaders like King anymore – the type who are bold enough to be uneasy with dysfunction, principled enough to act to change it and selfless enough to take the resistance’s all-but-certain punches and body blows, including accepting the risk of losing the right to enjoy the results of their efforts down the road. Perhaps, easy and early compromise with the devil to preserve position and wealth is now the new contrived and preferred virtue of leadership, versus dogged determination to effect change for the common good. I observe this deficit in the suites of business and the hallways of government, two areas I work the most with and follow most closely.

Either way, there is a lesson and reminder here for those emerging and established leaders who aspire to have lasting impact on any system within which they operate, be it in society, politics or business (the setting might be much more benign than US civil rights but the temperament should be no less convicted) – Please accept with confidence the entire mantle and mandate of leadership – to own and drive transformation and to lead with bold vision, along with the attendant necessity to be selfless or willing to self-sacrifice. At the minimum, this is what true leadership takes. And this is indeed a timeless lesson of which the world needs an annual reminder every January.

In remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


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