Free Enterprise Staff  | January 16, 2016

4 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed lives across the United States (and arguably) around the world. His influence advanced civil rights during a turbulent time in the country’s history and brought to the forefront the tribulations segregation inflicted on African Americans.

 Every year the country celebrates the life of the civil rights leader on the third Monday in January. This year we wanted to pay tribute to King, whose influence has only grown over time by highlighting his most famous work and just a few of insights entrepreneurs can glean from the civil rights leader. 

1. The power of organization 

It’s not an easy feat to organize a social movement amid staunch opposition, government interference, and huge logistical challenges. Yet King successfully faced and surmounted those obstacles throughout his very public career, especially when he spearheaded the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in the mid-1960s. That the walks, which were recently the subject of the feature film “Selma,” occurred in the first place is nothing short of remarkable given the time’s political climate.

The walk from Selma to Alabama’s capital city was actually thwarted twice before it was ultimately successful. The first attempt in early March of 1965 was broken up by state and local police, who attacked the 600 demonstrators; two days later, some 2,500 peaceful protesters were again stopped from marching because of a judicial order, according to ABC News. King managed to overcome each of these setbacks, and a week later the now historic 54-mile march took place—with 25,000 people.

 2. The ability to overcome opposition

King’s career and life’s work was built on overcoming opposition in all forms. Whether it was the aforementioned marches or his staunch advocacy for equality, King is a model for anyone facing stiff odds. Though the kind of resistance an entrepreneur faces while building a business is hardly comparable, the father of the Civil Rights Movement is a dynamic reminder of the sheer power of determination. He was, after all, a driving force behind the passage of comprehensive Civil Rights legislation, and he even penned an enormously influential treatise while imprisoned in a Birmingham jail.

3. The importance of having a clearly defined mission

Just like all the great nonviolent protest leaders of history, King understood the importance of clearly defining and articulating his Movement’s objectives and plans. Much like the business plan any founder must create when he or she sets out to start a company, the kind of mission statement perfected by King is an important tool that helps supporters and even potential detractors better understand—and hopefully support—the issue at hand.

Though examples of his oratory and rhetorical gifts abound, King’s famously celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech contains perhaps the clearest and most direct pronouncement of his ideals. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed,” he said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

4. Adaptability 

King displayed his unmatched ability to adapt to any circumstances throughout his public life. Regardless of the cards he and his Movement’s followers were dealt, King deftly adjusted his strategy. From the march from Selma to Birmingham to his Birmingham letter, King was never dispirited in the face of adversity.

King was also able to do something that none of his peers or predecessors had accomplished by effectively uniting the many disparate groups who shared the common goal of attaining equal Civil Rights for all. Rosabeth Moss Kanter summarized King’s unique ability to do this in an essay published in the Harvard Business Review: “To King, a true leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus,” she argued.

“The Civil Rights movement, like all social movements, was a jumble of many independent organizations with their own leaders and ambitions. King and his colleagues in his organization were not in charge, but they managed to get many separate groups moving together.”