Anyone can be a general, but not everyone wants to be a soldier. Yet it’s the number of soldiers that make an army that wins the war. And the seemingly small choices of each soldier makes all the difference. It’s literally a matter of life or death.
This is on my mind as the U.S. celebrates the life of someone who epitomized leadership — someone who is seen as god-like for winning several battles that still impact our world. Many of us dream of leaving the same mark in history through the businesses, charities, or initiatives we lead. Not a bad thing in and of itself. But considering the reality of what true leadership is, it’s important to understand why and how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example of the risks that come with pursuing this goal.
“The community in which I was born was quite ordinary,” King wrote in his autobiography, describing his childhood environment as an “unsophisticated simplicity.” That simplicity, “where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present,” developed a generation of leaders who disrupted nearly 200 years of inhumane status quo. It’s a theme that comes up in multiple parts of King’s story — people linking arms figuratively and sometimes literally in order to achieve something bigger than themselves. This is the most important takeaway from the civil rights era that, if ignored, makes lionizing our leaders a dangerous ceremony, detrimental to a sustained course for bettering society.
Take our motivation for celebrating Dr. King, for example. If it becomes a lust for the celebrity and honor that comes with that level of recognition, we cheapen the process of becoming a leader and reduce our capacity to spark lasting, positive change.
MLK was a human being. The power of media and folklore has deified him to unnecessary levels. Let me be clear — I will always be one of Dr. King’s biggest admirers. I don’t mean to diminish what he’s done for this country. But when we rate leadership based on the height of a pedestal instead of the magnitude of the multitude, one man’s (or woman’s) growth happens at the expense of everyone’s evolution. Dr. King knew this, and his spotlight didn’t just shine on him. Instead, he combined his with the lights of protégés like John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, and Dorothy Cotton to create a beam the burned through bridges of stagnation and hate.
One man, one dream, is an easy target. But a million of us is harder to kill. And a million good deeds is far more reliable than the act of one phenomenal person. As we honor Dr. King for what, in fact, was servant leadership, let his call for unity push us to also see one another in equally vital positions of influence. True leadership — which Dr. King exemplified so well — unites soldiers in battle for the greater good.
A powerful league always trumps the sole superhero. It promotes what’s universally right over what’s “popular” about the individual. Dr. King arguably wasn’t as beloved in 1965 as he is now, and even today his image is either caricatured or bastardized to appease one group over another. By doing this, his name becomes less of a threat than it should be to the powers that be. Out of self-preservation for the little bit of routine that survived the assaults of the Civil Rights Movement, people morph King’s image into something that seems too large or mythical to replicate ever again. Because some want to be “great again”, they celebrate MLK but ignore Malcolm X, though the contributions of both spark a critical debate about diversity of thought. It’s placing King within the larger context of Malcolm, Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez and Fred Hampton that makes his significance more evident, more palpable. Together, they are vines producing fruit from seeds of inspiration, planted in them by the brave steps the one before them took. Each is a branch from a community tree that grew in spite of a hostile climate. Equally fruitful branches, each providing much food for thought.
There were a few people I wanted to emulate as a child, and one of them was definitely Dr. King. I didn’t think I could be as eloquent as he was, or as famous as he is. But I at least knew I wanted to be as decent, as generous with my life to make the world a better place.
Wanting to achieve something monumental also came from thinking I had to prove my worth. I wanted to show that I was earning my keep on this Earth, rather than freeloading off the successes of others. The humble truth is I’ve never been that extraordinary. Yes, I studied in school, got decent grades, went to college (rare for many of my peers) and on top of that, got a Master’s degree. But “extraordinary” to me was defined as something beyond my reach, so I avoided taking on leadership roles while at the same time feeling obligated to step into those spaces. I gave up thinking I deserved to be the leader I once imagined I could be.
That is also the danger of lionized leadership. I fear that we don’t realize the hazards of hyping the accomplishments of a select few. Sometimes we make it seem as if it takes winning a prize or acceptance into an elite club to be someone of use, or capable of causing cataclysmic change. Dr. King was a well-read scholar, and somewhat an anomaly because of his intellectual ability. Would we celebrate him in the same way, though, had he not won the Nobel Peace Prize, or earned a Ph.D., or spoke with a cadence we typically expect from our leaders? What if, lacking all of those things, he still had and pursued his dream?
The world is in desperate need of change agents, and no one, two, three or hundred of us alone can be responsible for bearing the cross. The renowned surgeon still needs the humble, loving nurse whose strength to love keeps the cancer patient’s hope alive. Competitive Ivy League programs need the elementary school teachers who sacrifice lunch breaks and corporate paychecks to train up their future alumni. The girl riding the bus, contemplating suicide, needs the kind words of a stranger before she makes it to her appointment with the licensed therapist.
True leadership, unadulterated leadership, is a legacy created by the masses. One leader is never enough. Let’s honor Dr. King today by honoring the leader within us all.