While I was in graduate school for my MBA, I read for the first time Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail from April 16, 1963. This letter may seem like unusual reading for MBA students and mostly dedicated capitalists, as Dr. King's letter addressed themes of leadership and social justice.
After reading the view of local clergy, Dr. King wrote his letter in the Birmingham Jail on scraps of paper and completed it on a legal pad provided by his defense attorneys. It is interesting to consider that an MBA program would require reading Dr. King's letter, but as I share below his words are powerful reminders that the words and conduct of leaders are powerful. I encourage you to read the letter for yourself and consider the lessons on leadership that are contained within his well chosen words:
- I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
- I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
- But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
- Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
- For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
- The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
- There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
- One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
- How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
Real leaders require this understanding of justice and the courage to articulate and demonstrate such conviction. What is interesting to me is that leadership is fundamentally defined by having the courage to express your views - despite opposition, despite fear, despite overwhelming odds. It is courage that defines leadership. Even though it may not have the same impact as Dr. King, re-reading the letter reminds me that business leaders need similar courage. In big and small things. We need courage to speak the truth.
Looking back it is easy to know understand why Harvard Business School required 900 emerging leaders to read Dr. King. Dr. King's letter is Ione of the best illustrations of expressing the courage required of leadership. It is very difficult to appreciate the context for his arrest, the violence and unrest that surrounded him - yet his letter captures so many complex emotions, speaks about enduring values and illustrates the courage that is needed by anyone who assumes the mantel of real leadership.
Do yourself a favor and take the time to read Dr. King's entire Letter from Birmingham Jail. Take from it what you will, but it should inspire each of us to find courage to give voice to the values we know to be true.
In : Leadership
Tags: dr. martin luther king leadership social justic letter from a birmingham jail