Was Organizational Culture Key to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Movement?

Why it’s important to dream: define values in your company.

“I have a dream…”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the source – and circumstances – of this iconic quote.

August 28, 2020 marks the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. He ignited his audience and set down a foundation for how his allies would engage in the civil rights movement.

It’s important to consider how he ignited his followers, because it’s an approach that too many business leaders miss when they’re trying to “motivate” their employees.

Here’s what I mean…

Martin Luther King took time to define his values.

That four-word snippet of his speech has become synonymous with the civil rights movement and the impetus for social change. But the body of his entire speech merits attention.

This is the section that resonates with me as a business coach:

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice:

In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Dr. King was telegraphing his values: dignity, discipline, pacifism in the face of violence. He was clearly explaining the culture of his civil rights campaign. His followers understood how they would have to conduct themselves if there were to emulate his methods in order to achieve a common goal.

How do you define values in your organization?

If you routinely find yourself in meetings with a room full of highly qualified, yet underachieving professionals, chances are good that you can’t.

Why it’s important to dream: define values in your company.

What’s your campaign?

Here’s the stumbling block I see most often in my practice. Leaders don’t know how to articulate their vision, so they have no way to communicate it to their employees.

Clear company values are the building blocks of a successful, productive culture. Try this exercise and learn how to define values that will resonate with your team.

1. Get a pen and paper.

That’s right, we’re going old school. It’s been proven that a pen and paper are more effective tools than a keyboard for this kind of exercise.

2. Write “I have a dream…” at the top of the page. And then follow it with these statements:

  • That in 5 years my company will be…
  • That my office space is filled with…
  • That my co-workers are…
  • That the work I’m doing is…

Dedicate at least 15 minutes to this exercise, and include as much detail as possible. Steer clear of writing negative statements, for example, “I have a dream that the work I’m doing is not monotonous anymore.” Find positive value statements, such as, “I have a dream that the work I’m doing is inspiring and challenging.”

Now take your campaign on the road.

You’ve defined your ideal workplace, your “dream job”…what are the behaviours or values in this workplace that make it so special? For Dr. King, it was a high plane of dignity and discipline, and creative, peaceful protest.

Once you’ve envisioned how to manifest this wonderful workplace, take this exercise and share it with your team. Build an army of activists who are inspired to join you. Together you’ll form a powerful vision of how the workplace will function as a dynamic, cohesive unit with a common goal.

Keep in mind that like any exercise, repetition and routine are vital, and here’s why…

First, change is inevitable – what brought us to today’s situation won’t necessarily sustain us in the future. You’ll have to keep looking ahead.

Second, the demographic of the workplace is changing. Boomers are (mostly) easing out, Millennials are sweeping in, and they bring a completely unique set of values with them. They have different goals for their life – both personal and professional. You’ll have to keep up.

Third, your customers hold your future in their hands – or more accurately at their fingertips. One poor customer review of your business online can go viral and crush your reputation in a keystroke. You’ll have to stay nimble…pay attention to shifting expectations and the high-speed ways in which they’re communicated, especially when you’ve failed to meet them.

Now turn up the heat.

This exercise isn’t meant to create a slow simmer on the stove. It’s meant to boil.

You have a CFO, an Operations Manager, a VP of Human Resources, to turn down the burner and bring some reality to your dreams when it’s time for implementation. For now, think big! Couch your conversations around “what if” statements.

You can ignite yourself – and your team – from within if you take time to define values and communicate them. If you’d like help getting started contact me. We can work one-to-one, or I can work with your whole organization.

You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish when you have a dream.

Did you enjoy this article? Here are some more related articles:

Why are Workplace Culture Changes Failing? How to Avoid this Major Pitfall
How to Define Corporate Culture – Demystify the Way Work Gets Done in Your Organization
The Next Evolution in Leadership – Will You Fit In?

This article was originally published in 2015 and was updated in 2020.

No Comments

  • What you left out Carol, was that MLK managed to assemble 250,000 people in Washington without social media, the internet and many of the advantages we have today. His message was about belief and the people who gathered shared that belief. The message and vision needs to resonate with the people who are going to work with and for you. If your values and beliefs align with the people you work with, the I have a dream exercise will be like wild fire and the organization will experience a cultural revolution.

  • Neil, you are absolutely right about the importance of a vision and making it a shared belief. Appealing to, and hiring, people with shared values will move your organization forward exponentially. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

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