Real Leaders

Martin Luther King III: “Leadership Starts With You”

The son of Martin Luther King Jr. shares his insights on how your family can grow and sustain a mission-aligned leadership culture that transcends the next generation and beyond.

Martin Luther King III describes what family leadership looks like against a landscape of global problems:

Where to focus family leadership efforts. There are monumental world issues that we should focus on as a society. Climate change is among the most important because if our water and air are polluted, then everything else is for naught. If we don’t find ways to address it, we’re going to all be in trouble.

Second is the eradication of poverty in the world and certainly, within our own nation. Our nation has an inordinate amount of poverty based on the amount of resources that exist here. My parents used to talk about the eradication of poverty, racism, and I’d say violence – although my dad used to call it militarism. Those triple evils are where leadership-oriented families must focus. 

The King family’s leadership focus. Society has embraced a culture of violence. It’s in our cinemas and in the gaming industry targeting our children. It’s in our homes as domestic violence. Leaders have to think about how to create a culture of non-violence because non-violence is sustainable. Our culture cannot sustain itself if we continue to operate this way.

If we can live a day in peace, why can’t we live a week in peace? If we can live a week in peace, why can’t we live a month? If we can live a month, why not a year? And if we can achieve a year, why not a lifetime?

So many people look to the United States for leadership, but we are the most divided we’ve ever been. We can’t focus on one political interest — we have to look at what serves humanity. Leaders need to help communities get above the noise and think at a different level. 

As a family, we are focusing on peace, justice, and equity. While that’s furthering the legacy of my parents, it’s also the legacy of our family in general, and our 11-year-old daughter is working with us on it, too.

Role of individual leadership in moving the needle on world problems. Start by deciding what kind of society you seek for yourself and your family, and then identify where you can make a contribution. Some of us are concerned about the climate, so they should focus there. Some are concerned with police brutality, so they should focus there. Some are concerned with reproductive rights, so they need to engage and get involved there. All of us have a contribution we can make.

Importance of listening to young people. The truth is that young people are leading the rest of us. The Parkland students are a perfect example. They worked very hard to mobilize people around the country so that the needle can move on responsible gun legislation. These young people are totally engaged and leading us. I haven’t seen a movement like that since 1963 when 3,000 kids were arrested
in Birmingham attempting to desegregate the city.

Then we’ve got young people like Greta Thunberg leading us around climate issues. And even younger children like Little Miss Flint leading us around the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

I go to schools and ask kids what they are worried about. Too often, they say they’re concerned someone will come into their school and shoot them. Think about that: Our children have to practice what to do if someone comes into the classroom shooting at them. Our society has accepted a culture of violence. Instead of focusing on eradicating violence, we are focused on teaching our children how to cope with it.

I’m inspired by children and how easily and naturally they take action. Unfortunately, adults don’t tend to get involved until they are affected by it directly. When there’s a catastrophe, we get engaged. But the kids are showing us that we can get engaged at any time. Adults just have to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

On encouraging a culture of leadership within families. I’m always telling my daughter, Yolanda, that she has to be authentic. She’s been around leaders in her family for generations — parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles — we’re all involved. But I tell her she has to find her own authenticity. You don’t have to be like us. Be your best self. You’ve got to find your way.

She got a chance to speak at the March for Our Lives, and she went way beyond what I would have said because I am regimented by the laws of our land. At the event, she said she had a vision, her own dream (see sidebar, “Yolanda Renee King: I Have a Dream, Too.”) We did not help her with this speech or give her any guidance. She said, “I know what I want to say.” 

Lessons learned from my daughter. From day one, she’s had an interest in homelessness and poverty. I never pushed her, but I’m thankful she has this interest. Families that lead let their child be who they want to be. And what if your kid is not focused on being their best self? Exposure is everything. Every kid has a gift, and when they find their gift, they are motivated to work on it because it’s what inspires them. 

Yolanda knows what’s happening and why there’s a need to focus on U.S. poverty. If a kid comes to school hungry, they won’t have the energy to do anything. Principals tell me they have many transient students. There are apartments out there where you get your first month’s rent free, so after that, they move. They are constantly moving because they can’t afford to stay, and the kids never get a chance to adjust. Many in our society are completely unaware that these kinds of things are going on. How do we inspire kids to be leaders until we fix these problems?

Some time ago, I visited a school in Sudan. The school was in a tent — in fact, the whole place was a tent village. Our sponsor provided us with a shiny black Mercedes to drive out there. We got out of the car, and the kids started running out and pointing at the car and then running back in and bringing out more children and pointing at the car. And I thought, “Wow, materialism has even made it out here to these kids in Sudan.” But then I realized that the car was so shiny they could see themselves reflected on it. They had never seen a mirror before and were seeing images of themselves for the first time.

You may think you know what’s going on, but it’s all a matter of perspective. American kids often don’t realize how bad other kids have it. Exposure helps them realize, and then from that comes the desire to help others. Parents want to protect their children’s innocence, and that is preeminent. But we still need to let them grow up. Leadership-oriented families expose their kids to things so the kids can embrace the problems and become part of the solution.

Hardest thing about living a consistent life of  leadership. Most challenging is staying authentic in a nation where everything is quickly changing. You have to maintain your values and not let society change who you are and who your family is. But you do have to compromise to stay relevant.

We are focused on creating partnerships to align people and families who can help us with what we want to achieve. That’s what it’s going to take. No one person, no one organization can do all this work. It’s going to take a collective.

That’s what leadership is about — building this collective of collaborators. My dad would have called it creating the beloved community. And that’s what my wife and I, and even Yolanda, are focused on right now: creating these collaborations to continue the legacy and unfinished work of my parents.

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