12 Quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. to Inspire Change


Martin Luther King Jr. was a great leader and a historic change agent. Studying his quotes can inspire those of us who work to make positive change each day. King said:

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

The process of policy management (hoshin kanri) builds fact-based consensus towards the strategy of an organization. Finding consensus may result in agreement only at an insufficient, lower level whereas molding and shaping the consensus builds support for the change at a high level. Leadership must mold consensus at a high level, because:

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

The question that strategy and policy must answer is “what is our purpose?” and this purpose is to solve problem and serve our customers while respecting ourselves and our people. King also said:

Life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?

We should think first about serving others in order to find our purpose, rather than focused on the potential for reward or punishment. This is expressed in a quote from King:

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Too often leaders who are smart and well-intentioned are paralyzed by an unfulfilled need for a detailed strategy and structured road map of the journey. The “Why?” is far more important than the “How?” In King’s words:

Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.

As Taiichi Ohno said “the wise mend their ways”. Those leading change should be vocal and persistent in putting their ideas forward, and swift and humble in admitting that they are wrong. In King’s words:

When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew what it was to be a minority, both within the American society of his day and also in calling for non-violent protest. For those of us who are the minority voice in calling for change in our organizations, King offers these words of encouragement:

Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.

And also:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

We must look deeper at our current condition to truly grasp the situation and understand the system level causes of the problems we see on the surface. King puts it more poetically:

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.

In Lean transformation we talk a lot about “eliminating waste” but perhaps we also need to talk about “creating greater value”, just as King points out the importance for an emphasis on the positive aspect of change:

We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but the positive affirmation of peace.

A leader must be an educator and teacher, and King says this about education:

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.

And finally, to those who many not see themselves as leaders, or able to influence great change today, there is always the possibility for personal change and potential for greatness in whatever you do. King said:

If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.

3 Comments

  1. Ron Pereira

    July 16, 2007 - 8:23 pm

    For us Catholics we read about the Good Samaritan this past Sunday. I took my kids to the children’s liturgy and remember thinking of how these verses applied to my profession.
    Your comments about how a leader (and all of us for that matter) should serve others was perfectly stated.
    Thanks for writing such excellent content Jon. I, for one, have grown so much from it. Keep up the excellent work my friend.

  2. Jon

    July 16, 2007 - 9:44 pm

    No thanks needed, no credit deserved. These are Martin Luther King Jr’s words, available to anyone who seeks them out.

  3. John Peter Prins

    May 11, 2010 - 5:41 am

    How about those quotes:
    Bad leaders create followers, good leaders create good leaders!
    or
    “To do the same thing over and over and to expect that the results will change, is insanity”
    (Albert Einstein)
    Regards
    John Peter Prins