Lessons from the Mountaintop
Reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy
Today is my birthday. I’m thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated the day I turned two years old. Every year I use this coincidence of dates to reflect on MLK’s contributions to the world and what was lost when he was killed at 39. I never run out of lessons to learn.
Today my mind has turned towards MLK’s ‘Mountaintop’ speech, which he delivered 50 years ago yesterday.
I have been to the mountaintop.
I may not get there with you.
I’m not worried about that now.
Those words are a distillation of a purposeful vision. Every time I hear them I get goosebumps. I am awestruck considering the historical context of that declaration and knowing now what would transpire the next day.
As a leadership coach, I work with individuals and teams who are creating and articulating their visions for themselves, their organizations, and their communities. They are striving to make those visions real through what they do and who they are. It is humbling work that is deeply satisfying – and sometimes scary.
Why is this scary?
Declaring a vision is more of a departure than an arrival, like leaving a familiar home in search of a highly-anticipated, but uncertain destination. Too much uncertainty can manifest itself in fear. There are many factors at play:
- The world is increasingly complex and fast-changing. Long-range planning is not always realistic. The environment favors agility over the search for surety.
- Implementing a vision involves mobilizing people and resources. For some, this may include a complex web of employees, owners, customers, and other diverse stakeholders. That is not something that can be tightly controlled.
- We are fighting biology. At a basic neurological and psychological level, humans are wired to seek safety, security, and certainty. Yet, acting on a vision means change (moving from a current reality to a desired future).
With these factors encouraging us to stay focused on the near-term, it makes sense that reaching towards the future can seem scary.
So, what is a leader to do?
Here are four possibilities that I have found helpful:
1. Understand how you experience uncertainty
Our visions are outside of us. They live in the future.
Inside of each of us is a unique and highly-evolved belief system. Simplified, it is a set of core assumptions about you and the world around you. As mentioned, some of these assumptions develop to protect our most basic needs. They show up in our emotions, attitudes, behaviors, skills, body language, and actions. Our belief system also shows up in how we experience uncertainty.
In 1968, MLK was operating in an extremely complex, highly ambiguous environment. In MLK’s case, his experience of that environment gave him the determination and confidence to support his vision.
Faced with the same level of complexity and ambiguity others might freeze, flee, or fight.
We can define these reactions in two ways:
MLK’s stance towards uncertainty could be defined as creative/generative, moving him forward towards a destination.
On the other hand, someone exhibiting reactive/consumptive tendencies are potentially creating self-limiting patterns.
Although they sound different, everyone uses both responses. Unsurprisingly, the creative dimension is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness. Part of a leader’s development involves understanding these dimensions and creating leverage through this understanding.
2. Anticipate failure
I don’t mean capital ‘F’ fail. I mean the setbacks that inevitably happen when you try to achieve something big.
In the face of such setbacks, I often struggle to find the grace and compassion to accept my failures and to have the backbone to hold myself accountable to be better tomorrow. It takes energy to hold the right balance of both.
Maintaining equanimity in moments of discouragement taps our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual resources. When undertaking change, it is important to be ‘fit for purpose.’ Wise leaders develop practices to help them be sustainable and remain resilient.
3. Separate ‘what’ from ‘how’
“I envision [insert your vision here], but that’s not realistic because of [x, y, z].”
Have you ever said something like this or thought it to yourself? This is an example of conflating: Combining two completely different questions and treating them as if they were one.
- What do I want?
- How will I make it happen?
The ‘what’ question addresses destination. The ‘how’ question is about process. Trying to address both together can limit your destinations to only things that appear immediately doable (i.e. incremental). It can also stop vision in its tracks by making it seem unachievable. Transformative visions can be delicate. It’s easy to poke holes and ‘how’ yourself into inaction.
Spending sufficient time and energy on just the ‘what’ of your vision lets it breathe and come to life. Experiencing your vision means taking time to walk around it and get comfortable. Just postpone the planning for a little while.
4. Be clear on why
It has become fashionable to talk about knowing your ‘why.’ In this case, ‘why’ means: To cultivate your purpose as a source of passion and inspiration for yourself and others. Definitely important.
Here, I’m using ‘why’ a little differently. Most successful leaders I know are adept at analyzing cost/benefit and risk/reward. In that mode of analysis, your vision can be at a distinct disadvantage.
Think about how people anchor in time. As an example, Time Value of Money (TVM) says a dollar today is worth more than that same dollar three years from now. The rewards from your vision are in the future and may be a bit fuzzy. Your risks are probably sitting in your in-box right now. It’s not a fair fight. And for many people, it’s unrealistic to totally suspend that calculus in our heads.
Giving your vision a fighting chance means being crystal clear on one question: For the sake of what am I (are we) embarking on this journey?
Articulate your answer. Repeat it. Share it. Publicize it. Put metrics around it. Post it on your bathroom mirror. Whatever it takes for you to make the ‘why’ of your vision as present in the moment as possible. Be ready to face all the obstacles that are bound to show up.
With all of this in mind, I return to MLK’s speech and understand his message in another way:
I have seen a new future through my vision.
I do not know when or how it will happen.
I am unafraid.
On this birthday, I’m taking the chance to reflect on my own vision and how I experience uncertainty. I used to call that “eating my own dog food.” Today I prefer “drinking my own champagne.”
At Nebo, we work with leaders from all backgrounds to help realize their vision. Contact us to learn more.
 See David Rock, SCARF