It’s here in my house in Northern California where I sit writing this post to you now, reflecting on one of the greatest leaders, ever, Martin Luther King, Jr., before we celebrate his achievements on Monday, the official Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Though I believe his accomplishments should be celebrated every day as we work toward even more diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, in our industry and in our lives.)
His trajectory to excellence has always fascinated me, not only because his work would change the course of history but also because when he was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, he received a C in public speaking. Yes, the “I Have a Dream” legend got a C. The following term, he raised the C to a C+ and do you know what happened next? In classic leadership fashion, his professors held him accountable because they knew what he was capable of, and what he could achieve.
Famed Stanford history professor Clayborne Carson once wrote of MLK’s pivotal transformation that he “quickly immersed himself in Crozer’s intellectual environment.” King himself once recalled of this time in his life: “If I were a minute late to class, I was almost morbidly conscious of it…I tended to overdress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined, and my clothes immaculately pressed.”
The newly focused MLK did get his grades up and was not only an A student by the time he graduated but also student body president and class valedictorian. It’s the ultimate story of accountability in action and what one can achieve if they commit to and believe in their capacity for greatness.
After graduation, the stage was set for history to be made.
Over the course of his 11-year career in civil activism, MLK traveled an estimated 6 million miles and delivered 2,500 speeches. At age 35, he was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. (An interesting fact that speaks to the character of this leader and selflessness: When notified he had been selected, King announced that he’d turn over the $54,123 in prize money to the civil rights movement.) He also has about 900 streets named after him today and is widely regarded as one of the greatest public speakers to ever live.
But let’s return to Oct. 26, 1967, when Dr. King delivered a speech to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia. Tragically, the speech happened just six months before he was assassinated but his profound sentiments would endure as part of his legacy forever.
At the opening of the speech, Dr. King asked the students a single question: “What is your life’s blueprint?”
He explained: “When a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, and a building is not well-erected without a good, solid blueprint.”
He said that in their life blueprint, the students should put two things:
- A deep belief in their own dignity, worth and “somebodiness.”
- The determination to achieve excellence in whatever their life’s work turns out to be.
So, what’s the message? In his 1967 speech to the students, Dr. King quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously said: “If a can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”
While King inspired through his civil activism, his ability to see the prejudices of the world and do something about creating positive change, he also inspired through his commitment to his life’s work, in his own pursuit of excellence as he honed his unique and extraordinary ability to shape the world into a place where equality isn’t just a dream, but a truth universally accepted.
In this world, everyone is focused not on bringing people down but lifting people up and becoming the most exquisite version of whoever, it is they are meant to be. As Dr. King said to end his speech in Philadelphia, “Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
To learn more about Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredible contributions to civil rights, his life and legacy, visit www.thekingcenter.org.
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.