From the Lincoln Memorial, to the Lorraine Motel, to His Words Carved in Granite – Dr. King’s Words Stand Strong
“Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee (the night before his death)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — 48 years ago today.
I was 12 years old, and not paying much attention. And a lot of others were not paying much attention either, though they were old enough that they should have known better.
But on this day, August 28, 1963, he did what he did best. He spoke the words of his mind and his heart. And, if you look at his career, that’s what he did: he spoke. He spoke, and spoke, and marched, and spoke, and stood with others, and got arrested, and wrote a brilliant letter from a jail cell, and spoke some more, right up to the night before he died.
The big event, at which he gave his greatest speech (many call it the greatest speech of the 20th century in this country), was named the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” His dream had been shared at least one time earlier, in Detroit (in the audience was the Pastor who helped organize the event, Reverend Franklin, and the Pastor’s young adult daughter, Aretha):
This earlier version included these words:
“I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job…” (emphasis added)
(Read about the Detroit version here).
On this day in August of 1963, his themes sounded forth in a loud and clear voice.
What did he accomplish? Some, so much…not enough. He spent the rest of his years adding to the “simple” civil rights struggle with ongoing, deep, and abiding concern for jobs, and then, at the end, opposition to the war in Vietnam.
I think it may be best to call him simply the Prophet. “The lion has roared–who will not fear? The Sovereign LORD has spoken–who can but prophesy?” wrote Amos (Amos 3:8). And so, when Dr. King saw injustice, he spoke. Over and over and over again.
Does speaking matter? Does speaking up, speaking out, matter? Yes – it may be the one thing that matters most. The history of getting things accomplished always begins with: “In the beginning was the word.” Take your pick – Winston Churchill spoke, and they did fight them on the beaches, and never did surrender… Franklin Roosevelt spoke, and people learned that fear itself was the greatest thing to fear. JFK spoke about a bold idea to accomplish by the end of the decade, and we did send men to the moon and bring them safely back to earth again.
Words lead to deeds. They always have. They always will.
Sadly, Dr. King was silenced far too soon. What would he be doing today? I suspect he would speak, with his loud and clear voice, about jobs. Remember, it was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” And on the night before he died, he spoke in Memphis, speaking out for the jobs of sanitation workers who were not treated justly. Injustice, injustice in the arena of jobs — jobs for the common person. This mattered to Dr. King. And when something mattered to Dr. King, he always knew what to do — he spoke.
He spent the last night of his life at the Lorraine Motel, room 306. I show a brief video, which includes his I Have a Dream Speech, to each of my speech classes. It is narrated by Peter Jennings. There is the iconic photo of Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, standing next to a very young Jesse Jackson. I’ve been to the Lorraine Motel. It is as Peter Jennings described it: “a cheap, cinder block rooming house.” He did not go to Memphis looking for a plush retreat. He stayed in a modest place, and spoke to and about the workers. He cared about them, and their jobs. And he spoke. It is what he always did.
It would be nice to hear that voice today. No adequate replacement has arisen. That is why his words are etched in granite in the new memorial, just a stones throw from where he spoke some 48 years ago.
Update: my wife just read this post, and reminded me that Dr. King may not have been (probably was not!) welcome at the nicer hotels of Memphis in the 1960s. The Lorraine Motel may have been the kind of option he faced. I should have remembered this. (“We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.” – I Have A Dream. & ”When you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you” – Letter from Birmingham Jail).
Over the years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to associate with dozens of men and women who possess superior intelligence. However different they may be in most other respects, all of them “get it” almost immediately when introduced to the fundamentals of a previously unfamiliar subject.
Lots of people with lesser intelligence also “get it.”
What separates those of superior intelligence from them and everyone else is their ability to “get what they don’t get.”
That is, they know what they don’t know.
CliffsNotes offers a full-range of booklets about various subjects (for a cost of $9.99 each) that provide basic information. You can also purchase the PDF online for $6.99. Presumably because its coverage is somewhat more comprehensive, Principles of Management costs $11.99; PDF for $7.99.
I guess if you read all of these CliffsNotes booklets, there’s no need to read the best (not necessarily the most popular) business books and no need to take business courses, much less earn an MBA. Better yet, you can “fool” people into thinking that you really did read some books, take the courses and earn the degree.
Is “getting it” enough for most people? Is the illusion of knowledge more important than the reality of understanding?
So it would seem.
Note: When preparing for some interviews, I recently re-read several books on the creative process and remain convinced that all are still among the best. Case in point….
Pass the Idea
I presume to suggest that you read this book before you read De Bono’s Six Action Shoes and strongly urge you to read both. As he explains in Chapter 6, “The first value of the six thinking hats is that of defined role-playing…[the second] is that of attention directing…[the third] is that of convenience…[and the fourth] is the possible basis in brain chemistry” which De Bono outlines in the previous chapter.
What about the hats? The conceit is brilliant. Each hat is of a different color: white, red, black, yellow, green, and blue. De Bono assigns to each a quite specific combination of qualities and characteristics. Since childhood, my favorite color has always been green. Here is what de Bono says about it: “Green is grass, vegetation, and abundant., fertile growth. The green hat indicates creativity and new ideas.” De Bono also briefly characterizes the other colors and then devotes an entire chapter to discussing each of them in depth.
According to the subtitle, De Bono provides “an essential approach to business management.” That is true. He helps his reader to increase various reasoning skills through carefully defined and structured role-playing, and, by directing and then focusing attention where it is needed most. How? By understanding and then developing entirely different perspectives that the various hats represent: White (neutral and objective), Red (powerful emotions), Black (gloomy and negative), Yellow (sunny and positive), Green (fertile and creative), and Blue (logical and in control). You get the idea. De Bono urges his reader to SEE all of the hats while associating with each its own defining qualities and characteristics.
Here’s an exercise (inspired by De Bono’s ideas) that will work very well with those who have been required to read Six Thinking Hats prior to getting together to brainstorm. Buy several of those delightful Dr. Seuss hats (at least one of each of the six different colors, more if needed) and keep the hats out of sight until everyone is seated. Review the agenda. Review what de Bono says about what each color represents. Then distribute the Dr. Seuss hats, making certain that someone is wearing a hat of each color. Proceed with the discussion, chaired by a person wearing a Blue or White hat. It is imperative that whoever wears a Black hat, for example, be consistently negative and argumentative whereas whoever wears a Yellow must be consistently positive and supportive. After about 15-20 minutes, have each person change to a different colored hat. Resume discussion. Thanks to de Bono and (yes) to Dr. Seuss, you can expect to have an especially enjoyable as well as productive session.
In addition to De Bono’s Six Action Shoes, there are other excellent books also worthy of your consideration. They include those written by Guy Claxton, Michael Michalko, Joey Reiman, and Roger von Oech.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Andy Lansing is president and C.E.O. of Levy Restaurants, based in Chicago. He routinely asks job candidates if they are nice, which surprises them.
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Lansing Job Interviews Lead With 2 Big Questions
Bryant: You rose to the C.E.O. position from the legal side. How did that come about?
Lansing: I started, just because it was my nature, poking my nose into other areas. I would say to people, why do we do it that way in purchasing, or why do we do it that way in human resources? And Larry Levy, our founder, would say to me, “Just go fix it if you want. Go work with it.” So I found myself collaborating with other people who didn’t report to me.
Bryant: How did you do that without people getting their backs up?
Lansing: Part of it is the nature of our company, which is sort of this entrepreneurial family where people really didn’t live in silos. Even though there’s a head of human resources and a head of purchasing, there’s more of a sense of openness. We all did everything, we all worked hard, and I would approach people in a nonthreatening way.
I sort of did my best Columbo act, where I’d come in and say, “I don’t know, I don’t quite get it.” Maybe things made perfect sense to everyone else, but not growing up in the business gave me an advantage because I could say, “I don’t understand; will you explain it to me?”
I also learned early on about a trait of good leaders, which is that I may have the idea, but I’m going to make you think that you came up with the idea and give you credit for it at the end of the day. So it’s sort of getting people to do things without letting them know what hit them, and giving them credit for it.
Bryant: And how did you learn to do that?
Lansing: I don’t know. What I can tell you is that early on I wasn’t crazy about the concept of telling people what to do and being a boss. The power of being a boss is an awesome responsibility, and I feared it a bit when I first became a boss.
I figured out that I didn’t want people to fear me and do things because of who I was. People have personal power or they have positional power. Positional power means I have power over you because I’m your boss — “I’m very important, I’m the C.E.O.” You should fear me because of who I am. And then there’s personal power, which is what’s inside of you. I always say there are people in our company who are dishwashers who have more personal power than someone who’s a manager because they have that quality.
So what I figured out early on is that being a manager doesn’t equal being a leader. You can have the title of manager and that’ll give you the right to walk around and spin keys on your finger or talk in a walkie-talkie or look and act important, but that’s not what gives you power.
What I figured out is that what gives you power is how you treat people and how you lead. I remember when the first secretary I had at a law firm would introduce me to someone and say, “I want you to meet my boss.” To this day it makes my skin crawl. I’d say, “I’m not her boss; we work together.”
Bryant: Can you elaborate on the quality you’re describing?
Lansing: Leaders are the people you want with you when all hell is breaking loose. They have the knowledge about how to treat people with respect and dignity and how to just be a natural leader. There are those great debates — are leaders born or are they made? — and I think there are people who are just born with that natural ability that makes people want to follow them. I think some people are born with something that makes people gravitate towards them and want to work with them. I’m not saying it can’t be honed, but I don’t think you can teach someone that. I think it’s in their DNA.
Bryant: Let’s shift to hiring. How do you do it? What do you look for?
Lansing: I have a pretty nontraditional approach to hiring. I hire for two traits — I hire for nice and I hire for passion.
If you sit down with me, no matter how senior you are in the company or the position you’re applying for, my first question to you is going to be, are you nice? And the reactions are priceless. There’s usually a long pause, like they’re waiting for me to smile or they’re waiting for Ashton Kutcher to come out and say, “You’re being punked.” Because who asks that question? And then I say, “No, seriously, are you nice?”
Bryant: What do people say?
Lansing: It’s a question that you don’t prepare for and you’re not used to answering. And quite honestly, who is ever going to say no — nobody is. So I let them talk for a little bit about it as they try to figure out why I am asking that question. Then I stop them and I say, let me tell you why I’m asking that. The reason is that the most important thing to being successful at this company is to be nice. And if you’re not nice, this is the wrong company for you. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you, it just means that our cultures don’t align, and there are great places out there for you, but this is the wrong one.
Because if you get in this company and you’re not nice, I’m going to get you. It may be a day, it may be a week, it may be a year, but you will not have success at this company long term if you’re not nice.
Then I say, I know you’re not going to tell me that you’re not nice and you probably are very nice. But when you’re reflecting on the interview afterwards and whether you want to pursue this after our conversation, if you think that this nice thing is kind of “that’s not me and why do they care about that, they should only care about if I can do the job,” then pull yourself out of it. No harm, no foul. They won’t say it, but I’ve had more than one person not come back or not pursue the job.
Bryant: Where did you get the idea to do that?
Lansing: It was probably from Larry Levy, talking about the importance of being nice, and it kind of just evolved as a company philosophy that we only hire nice people. It’s probably the first line in every one of our training manuals — we only hire nice people. And I realized a bit selfishly, too, that I only want to work with nice people. I don’t want to work with jerks. Life’s too short. I also knew intuitively that if you have a company of nice people in a service business, in a hospitality business, that’s going to be a good thing.
Bryant: And the passion question?
Lasnsing: Then I say, “What are you passionate about in your life? What does passion mean to you?” And I’m looking not necessarily for the magic answer, but I love it when I hear that someone has fire in the belly. And then I say, you have got to be passionate about this company and the job if you come to work here. If you’re not, you’re going to be standing there, people are going to be driving by at 90 miles an hour and you’re going to say, “Whoa, what’s going on?” So again, ask yourself whether this is just a job to you; if it’s just a job, it’s the wrong place. If it’s just a step onto another career, it’s probably the wrong place. And then we talk about how the two biggest predictors of success in our company are those two traits.
If you give me someone who’s nice and who’s passionate, I can teach them everything else. I don’t care what school you went to, I don’t care where you worked before. If you give me someone with those two traits, they will nine out of 10 times be a great success in the company.
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.