I have been thinking about all the racial unrest in our land and this morning I was reminded of an essay from the book I wrote three years ago titled, The Power of a Humble Life. There is a chapter in the book where I identify ten people who made a difference in history, because of the power of humility and the difference it made in their lives. One of those people was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As you read about him, I ask you to consider how he approached those who opposed him and racial integration. We could all learn a great deal from the example he set.
Martin Luther King Jr. was probably the most visible spokesman and leader of the civil rights movement in America. He is best known for advancing civil rights using the tactics of non-violence through civil disobedience.
As you examine his life, it is quite clear that his effectiveness was rooted in humility. In the book, The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, author Rob Jenkins writes of Dr. King’s exceptional leadership skills. He refers to the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where King calls upon white Christian ministers to acknowledge the justice of his cause. This letter has come to be regarded as one of the most significant documents of the civil rights movement. So many of the changes that were championed by Dr. King came to pass rather quickly after this letter was written.
Jenkins asks the question, “What made his arguments so powerful?” It is quite evident that Dr. King approached those he was seeking to influence with great humility. However, it was not from a position of weakness or condescension, or speaking from the moral high ground. He approached them as an equal, as one seeking to be a person of good will who was speaking to another person of good will.
The power of this letter comes in its closing words:
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me . . . I hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as . . . a Christian brother.
This letter demonstrates how Dr. King was humble and meek, and yet quite forceful. Though he is challenging the white clergy on their moral responsibility, in no way does he act condescending toward them nor come across as if he is morally superior to them.
Two months before he was assassinated, Dr. King delivered his famous sermon about greatness, “The Drum Major Instinct.” He made it clear that Jesus gave us a new norm of what it means to be significant. In his own words, King said,
If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
Rob Jenkins makes this insightful observation about the power of humility as seen in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King:
King’s example teaches us something vitally important about humility: Far from the popular conception of “meekness” as a synonym for “weakness,” it actually is a form of strength. Or perhaps we should say, rather, that humility is a source of strength, a reservoir of great power.
Leaders who embrace and seek to internalize the virtue of humility do not simply fade into the background, as some might imagine. They do not become weak and thus prey for the strong in some Darwinian struggle for survival. Ultimately, they are the fittest, the strongest, and the most capable of leading.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.