I have found that a great time for me to get the best sense of who someone truly is at their core means that I need to see them when times are hard. Sports brings some great examples of this where we hear platitude like “winning cures all” which means a bad locker room is fixed when the team is winning. However, I would argue that those locker rooms aren’t fixed, there is just tension that is no longer present but the underlying problems still exist.
We see this with leaders all the time. We see leaders ride good market conditions or maximize previous people’s good decisions but that hardly tells you who they are or who they will be when things are not going well.
Historically, we can see how this is important for leading a movement or to driving change because change is hard. There will be times where adjusting course is tough and people will question if the juice is worth the squeeze. There will be times where those who are not fully behind the shift that is being made question the actions, motives, and abilities of those leading this change. Knowing how people react when things are not going well is imperative to understanding how they will act as managers when these things are happening.
Martin Luther King is easily the best example for someone who handled challenges with grace and dignity. He hardly needs an introduction but his actions in the face of extreme adversity lead him to be a revered leader who brought forth major social changes in the United States.
A well-documented example of his grace and leadership in tough times comes from the letter he wrote while sitting in the Birmingham jail. These letters were incredibly effective because of a how they showed his ability to reframe an argument and advance the cause of equality in ways that had not been possible in the 100 years prior to the freeing of slaves.
Here is a link to his letter in both a document that you can read or listen to. Should you have the time to read the letter in its entirety, I highly recommend that you do. If not, that is OK as I’ll be talking about them here anyway.
Martin Luther King Jr was a well educated American Baptist minister from Atlanta, Georgia, who lead the civil rights movement by following in the steps of Gandhi, where the main tactics used were non-violence and civil disobedience. He was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, during one of the bouts of civil disobedience and was being criticized by some local clergy members who felt he didn’t belong in this argument. King obviously disagreed with them and wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail to explain not only why he was there but why the movement as a whole was necessary.
With this bit of context in mind, King has a section of the letter on complacency and bitterness where he talks about being initially ‘disappointed’ in his fellow clergymen. They saw his non-violent protests as him being an extremist. He spends the next couple paragraphs laying the groundwork for why non-violence is the best course of action, especially when juxtaposed against the actions of Malcolm X/Elija Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.
Martin Luther King describes the movement as one simply seeking equality for all. Ultimately, as Abraham Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. The civil rights movement was going to end with black people receiving the same rights as whites but the method for getting those rights was going to matter. If these means were used with violence, that would not be conducive to creating a new, stable, long-term equilibrium. However, doing nothing wasn’t going to be an option either because “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever” and the “yearning for freedom” was going to come to a head at some point. He doesn’t love the title of an extremist btu ultimately, he leans into it with this section of his letter:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good for them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” … And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” … So the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremists we will be.
This quote is fantastic because it shows that King accepts the title of being called an extremist so long as he is an extremist for good things. He is an extremist for love, for goodness, for the preservation of justice… He wanted to help advance this country to a new, brighter future.
There are many things I believe can be learned from these letters, from the idea that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, to the idea of constructive tension and so much more but what is important to take away from the actions of Martin Luther King Jr when compared to other civil rights activists like Malcolm X is how they acted when in the worst of times. Doing things the right way, always, is critically important to creating a good environment in the workplace. Things are going to go wrong. We talked recently about feeding the right wolf. You must consistently feed the right wolf, when things are good, when things are bad, and everywhere in between to create a happy, positive work environment.
But this is not only important for you to do but for those who you lead as well. If you are leading a major change or through tough times, knowing how your employees will react when things go sideways is important. I wish I had a great way to test this but this will be something that will take time to really understand.
Do you have any ideas on how to test this? Let me know in the comments below because I’d love to know!