We discussed the leadership lessons that we got from Nelson Mandela in the December 13 2013 instalment of this column.
Systems Think with Sam Hlabati
This was two days before the Africa International icon was buried in his humble village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Rest in Peace Great Son of Africa.
In this instalment, we shall discuss yet another icon, African — American pastor, activist, humanitarian and a leader in African — American Civil Rights Movement. Note that I underlined the word African in the African-American ethnic group.
Just like most other American people of colour, Michael King Jr is a descendent of our forefathers who were disenfranchised by the slave trade and ended up on farms in America, he is our African brother. His father Michael King, Sr was also a pastor and an early leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
Michael, Sr renamed Michael Jr to Martin Luther in honour of a German Reformer who was also a man of the cloth.
So Martin Luther King Jr came to being. Inspired by the example of strong characters of two great men he uniquely had symbolic links through his names; first his father after whom he was first named and Martin Luther after who he was later named, Martin Luther King Jr became a great civil leader. I will touch on a lesson in leadership that MLK (as Martin Luther King Jr is affectionately remembered in the US) left for the modern day leader.
The third Monday of each year in the US calendar is reserved for the remembrance of MLK. This year it was January 20. While the Americans and the entire world continue to honour MLK for his vision that changed the land-scape of human rights in his home country, it is important that we focus on a timeless leadership lesson that he left us. This lesson is as important for business leaders today as it were during his lifetime.
So great was MLK’s intellect that over and above a Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology, that he read for at Boston University which he was awarded on June 5 1955; the following honorary doctorate degrees were conferred on him; 1957 – Doctor of Humane Letters, Morehouse College; Doctor of Laws, Howard University; Doctor of Divinity, Chicago Theological Seminary.
In 1958 he was conferred Doctor of Laws, Morgan State College; Doctor of Humanities, Central State College, 1959; Doctor of Divinity, Boston University, 1961; Doctor of Laws, Lincoln University; Doctor of Laws, University of Bridgeport, 1962; Doctor of Civil Laws, Bard College, 1963; Doctor of Letters, Keuka College, 1964; Doctor of Divinity, Wesleyan College; Doctor of Laws, Jewish Theological Seminary; Doctor of Laws, Yale University; Doctor of Divinity, Springfield College, 1965; Doctor of Laws, Hofstra University; Doctor of Humane Letters, Oberlin College; Doctor of Social Science, Amsterdam Free University; Doctor of Divinity, St Peter’s College, 1967; Doctor of Civil Law, University of New Castle Upon Tyne; Doctor of Laws, Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa.
That is 17 honorary doctorates. It will not surprise me if I later find out that there are other honorary degrees conferred on him that I could have missed in my quick research.
The best output any organisation requires from its leadership is a vision. The commitment to a vision will always help keep everyone focused on an end goal. MLK’s obsession with a vision is well-summarised by Simon Sinek, an author who is well known for the “Start With Why” concept.
Sinek pointed out that the vision that was carried by MLK when he delivered the popular “I Have a Dream” on August 28 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington attracted over 250 000. He further noted out that the multitudes came without getting personal invitations, and there was no website to check the date and venue. He concluded that MLK told people what he believed and those who shared the same beliefs rallied behind him.
Dear leader, do you ever tell the team that you are with what you believe about where your organisation could be in the future? The people who turned up to hear MLK speak were there because they believed in what he believed in. They saw in him a leader who could further their beliefs hence they became followers.
He was not talking about what America should be like, rather what he believed a better America could be. Do leaders inspire the people through what they believe and get the team to believe the same about what the organisation could be. Or rather, are leaders telling the team what the organisation should be like in the future? Then, we ask them to all “take their positions in the battle” by ensuring that they do all the tasks written on their prescription of activities, a.k.a the job description.
When MLK spoke, he said: “I have a dream”, not “I have a plan”. Remember, we discussed the need to have the right people on the bus to set a vision with you. MLK spoke to stir such vision. A business plan focuses on what should be; a vision or dream focuses on what could be. The moment a pre-determined plan of what should be is given to the people, participation becomes of coercive conscription and the team will be there to put food on the table without sharing in any future dream.
Let us be practical about this discussion. Dear leader, do you have a vision for your organisation? I do not mean the fancy words that are printed on some glossy papers that are stuck on the walls in the meeting rooms and along corridors to the bathroom and the water cooler.
I mean a vision that is lived in everything that your organisation does. Such a vision is what I would term a “living vision”; one that is openly discussed in all team meetings and against which all significant actions are reviewed for their contribution in meeting the big goal.
When the vision in an organisation becomes entrenched, there will be no need to hang posters of the vision on the walls. I remember in my early school years, my very patient teacher wrote out cards for each student’s full name. We have to spend some time learning how to write our names, copying from the cards. Once we knew how to do that the cards were taken away because we had to know that by our minds and hearts. The same applies to an organisation’s vision, for once it is fully mastered by the hearts and minds of the team; it will serve no purpose being stuck on the walls. You will not need it for the new employees either.
The ones who believed in the human rights cause championed by MLK, shared the vision with others hence over a quarter of a million people turned on the right day, right time and right place without access to social media platforms or any viral communication platform. Your existing team members will share the vision with the newcomers once they are passionate about it.
You ned to keep communicating, keep communication, communicating the dream. Best of all your initial communication should set the tone for action. MLK began his “I Have a Dream” speech by saying: “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
Those were courageous words for someone who was still to see the result of his action, yet he proclaimed that to a multitude, thus demanding his space in history. Are we then surprised why the day surely went down in history as a great day? Making proclamations is not a preserve for the man and women of the cloth; it is a natural right that can be exploited by anyone who really believes in their vision. When communicating the vision in your organisations, do you proclaim victory or change before it is time? I looked up the meaning of the word “belief” and this is what I got “… an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof …” MLK’s belief changed the face of human rights when he communicated his vision.
Before you dismiss the power of belief as a domain for fuzzy social concepts, let us look at Steve Jobs. On June 1 2010 during an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the D: All Things Digital conference in Southern California, Jobs had this to say in response to a question about whether tablets would replace personal computers: “I’m trying to think of a good analogy. When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks. But as people moved more towards urban centres, people started to get into cars. I think PCs are going to be like trucks. Less people will need them. And this transformation is going to make some people uneasy … because the PC has taken us a long way. They were amazing. But it changes. Vested interests are going to change. And, I think we’ve embarked on that change. Is it the iPad? Who knows? Will it be next year or five years? … We like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen, it’s uncomfortable.”
Take note of the proclamation that less people will need PCs. With this proclaimed belief, Apple ushered into the market the IPad to a level where it is today. The tablet is gaining more ground each day against the PC. We all know what this has done to Apple’s success as a business.
It is better to share a dream, and share it with passion and conviction. Plans do not motivate anyone, they just point out what needs to be done, focusing on what should be. Inspire your team with a compelling shared vision of what could be and you will get them committed to your cause. The strategy will be the plan to help in achieving the vision.
Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®); E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter handle: @samhlabati