Visionary Team Leadership: Martin Luther King, Jr.


17 January 2016

Building Teams Around Clarity of Purpose.

Great teams. You’ve seen them. You may have been lucky enough to be part of one. Perhaps you’ve even led a great team. But what makes great teams great? 

Whenever I ask this question, most people tell me that great teams require great leadership. And I agree that leadership is a crucial, foundational element. In fact, today we honor one of the world’s greatest leaders – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With his passion, commitment and clarity of purpose, King was a revolutionary leader of social change in the face of overwhelming obstacles. However, he was never alone in the fight for civil rights and freedom – he motivated, inspired and encouraged a nationwide team of dedicated followers. And he started with a shared purpose.

Dr. King was brilliant in his ability to not only cast a compelling vision, but also to communicate it in such a way that his followers – his team, if you will – clearly understood their mission and why they were so important to the outcome. It’s a values-based leadership trait that is as powerful today as it was in King’s day. Don Yaeger, our subject matter expert whose video kicks off today’s Healthy Team Challenge, calls it, “knowing your why.” Great teams, says Don, are aligned to a single purpose—they understand that what they do matters; why it matters; and to whom it matters. Dr. King led a movement that mattered to those who value civil rights; to those who were discontent with the status quo. Their purpose was freedom, justice and civil rights for all.

That’s why I also believe that leadership must come from within the team as much as it does from the team leader. Dr. King’s followers clearly understood the dream and what it would take for them to make it a reality. As the ultimate example of the power of personal leadership, Dr. King’s dream didn’t die with him. It is his team —then and now – that continues to carry the dream.

But simply working together as a group doesn’t make a great team. According to a report by Small Group Research (Rebecca Lyons, Gerald F. Goodwin Cameron Klein, Deborah Diaz-Granados, Eduardo Salas, Huy Le, C. Shawn Burke), “The simple existence of a team-based structure is not enough to ensure that positive outcomes will result. Teams must be nurtured, supported, and developed.”

You can see this nurturing in any legacy leadership. Through his speeches, his marches, his grassroots relationships, Dr. King inspired his followers to take action; to vote; to learn; to drive change by continually asking “Why?”

Think about your own team … are they aligned around a single purpose? If not, Don’s advice—having worked with some of the world’s greatest athletes, teams, coaches, and organizational leaders—is to encourage your team to think about “how what they do affects the lives of others.” Learn the stories of your customers and how your organization’s products or services supports them and serves their needs in a way that no other organization does. Understanding your “why” is always human-focused, says Don, “and it’s always an act of service.”


If you’d like to build great teamwork, join our Healthy Team Challenge and you could win an all-expenses-paid trip to the largest and most inspiring one-day leadership development event in the world: Leadercast 2016! Watch, learn, grow – and show us what makes your team great.

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