With the critically acclaimed historical epic Selma opening nationally this weekend, a new generation of Americans has the opportunity to learn about a seminal moment in our nation’s struggle for civil rights while gaining a deeper understanding of the man who led the movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Espousing a philosophy of social change through non-violent protest, Dr. King inspired and influenced with his words, conveyed his vision with boldness and clarity, and took risks where others would retreat. He did something else common to great leaders: He surrounded himself with talented people and, through his guidance, empowered them to become leaders themselves.
King often served as a public figurehead for the civil rights movement, but it was actually a director within his organization, James Bevel, who conceived the Selma protest marches depicted in the film. A controversial figure with provocative ideas, Bevel often pushed others outside their comfort zones. Dr. King exerted his authority when necessary, but he also knew his colleague’s risky methods were needed to effect genuine change.
Another of King’s followers, Hosea Williams, was a World War II veteran disgusted by his mistreatment at the hands of the very people whose freedom he had fought to protect. Viewed by King as an inspirational communicator who could stir people to action, Williams was asked to lead the first Selma protest march.
Social activist Amelia Boynton Robinson let Dr. King and Bevel use her home as a planning office and, thanks to her background in fighting for women’s rights, soon became directly involved in organizing the Selma marches.
While these are just a few of the many important civil-rights figures whose lives are dramatized in Selma, each provides an example of Martin Luther King Jr.’s acumen for identifying and developing talent. Our day-to-day leadership experiences may be rather more mundane, but the techniques King employed work in any business setting.
Good leaders, foremost, do not try to put people in a box. Rather, they identify their strengths and interests and encourage those qualities. To elicit worthwhile contributions from team members, we should develop and motivate them based on their goals, not a list of tasks to be accomplished. Once we unleash their talents, that list is likely to change anyway.
Listening and being open to input is essential to developing those talents. Leaders are not afraid to ask questions, hear better ideas, or be pushed outside the comfort zone of familiarity. By empowering James Bevel to organize the Selma marches, despite the inherent danger, Dr. King ultimately helped drive the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Conversely, a leader who is effective in talent development also challenges people to take on unfamiliar, but achievable, goals, knowing mistakes will happen and stepping in to provide guidance when needed. Though the risks faced by Martin Luther King, Jr. were on a scale none of us will ever experience, the lessons of his leadership still apply in ways great and small.