Monday, January 20, 2014

3 simple messages from MLK that apply to the workplace

Today many of us take a day off from work to reflect on the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. As I was thinking of him this morning, three thoughts came to mind that I think are relevant to the workplace. They are related to dignity, excellence, and greatness.

My first thought was about a famous picture taken in 1964 of MLK with Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, then President of Notre Dame. The picture, called The Picture of Purpose, shows the two arm in arm at a rally in Soldier Field. Fr. Hesburgh told the crowd of 55,000, “We want to strive for dignity with you.” He linked arms with Mr. King to sing the movement’s anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

No one should have to strive for dignity. But, if someone does, do you strive with them? Back in 1964, they were striving for what most today would consider basic rights. But, today, people are treated without dignity in the workplace sometimes.

When a coworker is gossiping about someone, do you chime in? Sit silently? Or do you speak up on behalf of the absent person? Speaking in a disparaging manner is not treating someone with dignity.

Think about how you treat people who make mistakes. Do you teach them and rebuild their confidence, or do you hold a grudge never to trust them again? Holding a grudge is not treating them with dignity.

Those are just a few examples that hit home to me today. I wonder if we could all treat others with a little more dignity and respect.

The other thought I had this morning was about Mr. King’s famous street sweeper speech.

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo 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 street sweeper who did his job well.’ Be the best of whatever you are.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Sometimes people get impatient with the pace of their promotions. They want the fancy office and title because they think their current ones are not impressive enough. I understand the impact of titles externally; however, they should have nothing at all to do with one’s self-esteem. Be the best street sweeper, chemist, technician, waiter, writer, manager, accountant, or data entry person because that is who you are, not because someone else labeled you as the best. Excellence comes from within.

As for the pace of promotions, it is often sped up when consistent excellence combines with a positive attitude over time. A street sweeper who did well for a few months but now complains all the time about how messy the job is earns a reputation for misery, not excellence.

Mr. King said, “Everybody can be great.” Isn’t that remarkable? Every single person can be great. Really? You don’t have to be highly educated, wealthy, or famous to be great.

On days when you doubt your ability to achieve greatness remember what Mr. King said:

“Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?' Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. Greatness is determined by service."
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Greatness is not determined by education, title, wealth, or fame. It is attainable by everyone who serves others. The thought can get lost in the midst of our celebrity-centric culture. Charlie Rose called one of the infamous celebutants “the most frivolous person on the planet.” Let’s serve others, and admire those who do the same, so we do not earn a similar moniker.

Three of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s messages remain relevant today in areas beyond what he was fighting for: Treat others with dignity, perform excellently, and achieve greatness through service. Seems simple enough.


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