By Dr. Artika R. Tyner
Associate vice president for Diversity & Inclusion, University of Saint Thomas
My dream for the community is for each individual to discover the leader within. This begins by recognizing that we all have the transformative power within our hands to make a difference in the world. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated this power through his ability to educate, mobilize and inspire others to advance a vision of the beloved community where justice, peace and love reign supreme. In King’s Nobel Prize speech, he admonishes us to take a stand for justice by “refusing to accept the idea that man is unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.” This is a call to leadership.
On February 4, 1968 just two months before his assassination, Dr. King shared reflections on leadership in his prolific speech: “The Drum Major Instinct.” This speech challenges us to define leadership as a manifestation of service in the community.
To be great, you must become a servant
Leaders must overcome some of the tendencies of human nature, like the focus on achieving a sense of importance and obtaining prominence. Dr. King characterized these feelings as “the drum major instinct.” In order to truly reach the height of one’s leadership potential, Dr. King urged us to explore how we can maximize our influence. A journey to this pinnacle begins with leveraging your leadership to serve the needs of others and advance the common good.
Be first in modeling excellence
Leaders not only show the way but they lead the way. Dr. King challenged leaders to model excellence in service to society and acts of love. By modeling the way, your life will become a source of inspiration to others. This is the type of leadership that sparked the Civil Rights Movement as people from all walks of life discovered their ability to lead social change in their communities and in the nation following Dr. King’s example. This is a focus of putting first things first:
“But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”
Create the new normal
Some follow the crowd, while others lead the crowd. Through the exploration of the leadership profile of Jesus Christ, Dr. King outlined the importance of greatness emerging from your commitment to serve to others. This boils down to one simple question: Will you leave the world a better place than how you found it? If the answer is yes, then this is when your greatness will emerge. Dr. King shares:
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. 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.”
Empower others to lead
Everyone has a role to play. The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott is a profound example of the power of the collective. Once the community took a stand against segregation, nothing could stand in their way. For over 13 months, people from all walks of life exercised leadership as they challenged injustice through the power of nonviolent direct action. According to Dr. King, everyone has a key role to play in advancing social change:
“… it means that everybody can be great, [Everybody] because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about 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.”
The essence of the drum major instinct redefines the traditional notion of leadership. Traditionally, leadership focuses on title, accolades, and the exercise of power; however, this new definition offers a daily challenge for each of us to focus on advancing the cause of justice and creating the beloved community.
We are left with a clarion call to action — Will you follow in Dr. King’s example and take heed to your call to serve? My dream is for each of us to walk hand in hand as drum majors “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”