Lessons from MLK

Today is a holiday in the US, in honor of Martin Luther King. I’ve been reflecting on what lessons can be drawn from his work, especially for those of us who run organizations.

The facile answer would be something about equality in the workplace, equal opportunity for all, etc. But assuming those things are a given (or “self-evident”, to coin a phrase), I’m thinking more about the fact that he was a high-achieving guy, so what can I personally learn from his habits, in my quest to learn to be a better manager?

Communication skills, certainly. MLK's skills with oratory and prose are big reasons for his success. Any high-achieving manager needs to be a great communicator. 

But there’s something else, something I’ve learned the hard way in my own career: professional lives are filled with highs and lows, and great managers have the ability to maintain an even keel, day in and day out. In my career, I’ve many times been guilty pouting and climbing into a hole when I’ve lost deals, and I’ve taken giddy days off when I’ve won deals. Neither is very productive, really. Instead, maintaing a calm mindfullness and steady self-awareness through thick and thin is one of the hallmarks of a high-achieving manager.

I never knew MLK, of course – I was ten years old when he died. But my impression is of a guy who, as a manager, was relentlessly even-keeled. He experienced many lows in his career (being tossed in jail, for example) and many highs (becoming a media celebrity, meeting with Presidents) but he kept pushing forward, day after day, relentlessly, certain of the rationale rectitude of the cause on good days as well as bad.

Because that’s what great managers do. Happy Birthday, MLK.