3 Leadership Lessons from ‘ I Have a Dream ’

i have a dream“The heart and soul of effective leadership is the means by which we motivate, inspire, and drive others to live up to their full potential.” –Stephen Young, MicroMessaging

At the end of summer, our nation celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the ‘ I Have a Dream ‘ speech.  The primary driver of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s effectiveness is part due to technical brilliance, but more he understood the inseparable relationship between leadership and communication.  Each is an extension of the other and as impossible to divorce from each other as chickens and eggs.

Three leadership lessons from ‘ I Have a Dream ’

    • Reminds us what we already knowStanding on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King opened with the words, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” Instantly the audience is connected to the wholeness of an empowering truth already known, their freedom has already been ensured. Leadership is just as much connecting people to truths that deep down they already know as it is helping them discover new truths. 
    • Articulates the big picture in detailsDr. King is a master of metaphor and powerful parables as tools to make big dreams concrete in the listener’s mind.  One of the great failings of leadership of our time is that too few leaders take the time to inspire other to follow.  Visioning the big picture is part of great leadership; the other part is making those big truths relevant for those you expect to follow.  Too often I hear leaders criticize their constituents for not being able to see the big picture.  That is the job of leadership!  Dr. King used a very concrete symbol of segregation to explain the consequences of a polarizing issue when he delivered, “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: ‘For Whites Only.’”
    • Unquestioned authenticityEvery element of this speech is saturated in authenticity.  Not only because of who delivered it, a man willing to go to jail for his moral conviction, but also in how it was delivered.  Dr. King’s speech is technically brilliant in delivery.  His meter starts at about 50 words per minute allowing the audience to be drawn in, suggesting that he stands in the rightness of his message.  There is no need to rush a message that must be heard.  Starting with a slower meter also allows the crescendo as he launches into the impromptu ‘I have a dream’ section have the appropriate tone of authentic passion.  Too fast of a meter in speech raises suspicion in the minds of the audience. Dr. King also uses pauses of silence to allow his audience to digest all that they are hearing and this too lends to his authenticity.  We don’t tend to promote reflection over ideas we don’t truly believe ourselves.


Messaging (leadership) books that I love:

For the official transcript of this speech

Shawna Beese-Bjurstrom, RN, MBA lives in Spokane, WA with her family where she is an Executive/Business Coach.  She writes on issues such as healthcare strategy, operational excellence, communication, and leadership, read her blog.

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