7 Lessons From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For Every Entrepreneur
Today, as we do every January, Americans honor Dr. Martin Luther King, the de facto spokesman of the Civil Rights Movement, for his key role in helping our nation grow closer to its stated goal of delivering equality for all. Besides the obvious lessons that we can learn from Dr. King with regard to the need to improve the world and to stand up against injustice, there are several important lessons for entrepreneurs that we can learn from Dr. King’s life and message:
1. Pursue your dreams.
The quote most commonly associated with Dr. King was said by Dr. King during his historic 1963 speech: “I have a dream.” Dreams are powerful, and can certainly serve as great motivators – but they are only meaningful if we act on them. How many people let their dreams die because they fear making an effort to pursue that for which they wish? Such a problematic phenomenon is quite common in the world of business – how many great products and services were never invented – or were delivered to the market by people other than those who originally conceived of them – simply because someone was afraid of pursuing his or her dreams? How many great companies were never founded because the people who could have established the respective businesses decided that doing so was too hard or time consuming? There is a women’s entrepreneurial group appropriately called “Dreamers and Doers” – to be successful entrepreneurs need to do both.
2. Do not give up.
Today, as “money morning quarterbacks” we know that the efforts of Dr. King and others involved with the civil rights struggle would ultimately prove successful, but success was certainly not always perceived as guaranteed; the civil rights movement suffered many serious setbacks along the way. Various civil rights leaders were even murdered, including Dr. King himself who was killed just a few years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Thankfully, those involved in the struggle did not give up. Most entrepreneurs will face serious challenges and consider “throwing in the towel” at various points. Sometimes there is a need to exit a failing venture, but, when valuating options always keep in mind that nothing that is abandoned can ever succeed.
3. Expect to work hard.
Many people, including Dr. King, dedicated years of their lives in order to transform Civil Rights from an idea into law. Without their efforts who knows what America might look like today? While there may be some people who are lucky enough to succeed in business without much effort, such individuals are far and few in between. And, in most cases, the people whom we think succeeded without much effort actually worked quite hard to accomplish their achievements. As the famous aphorism goes (and as is incorrectly attributed to Thomas Jefferson), “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”
4. Big changes DO happen.
It may be hard for those of us who were born many years after the Civil Rights Act was passed to truly comprehend such, but at the time that the Civil Rights movement began the idea that discrimination based on race would be outlawed undoubtably seemed crazy to many people; widespread racism had been a part of American society for centuries. But, like so many other status quos that we think can never change, they changed. Not that many years ago, many “experts” said that the American public would not elect an African-American President, and that marriage equality would never be the law throughout the United States. On both fronts, they were totally wrong. Big changes also impact businesses – especially in today’s technology-rich world. From the shift to online news from printed newspapers, to the shared economy of Uber, AirBnB, and others, to the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI), major changes are happening. Businesses that stick with the “old way” when the world shifts to new models are doomed to fail – think about what happened to the once-dominant companies of Smith Corona, Blockbuster, and Kodak.
5. …and they often happen much faster than people expect.
While racism is, unfortunately, not yet an outdated concept relegated to history books, it is obvious how quickly attitudes towards race have changed in America. Many Americans alive today remember an era in which segregation was legal, yet many children being raised in today’s America, especially those whose memories begin in an era in which the nation was led by a President who is African American, have difficulty understanding the concept of segregation, which seems not only immoral, but downright ridiculous. Why in the world would anyone force people to physically separate based on how they look?
Changes for the positive can make older approaches seem primitive quite quickly, and those who do not adapt to progress are left behind. The same is true in business: How long did it take for people to replace their film cameras with digital cameras, and then to replace their digital cameras with the camera features on their phones? Not that long ago, anyone taking pictures in much of the western world knew the name of the industry-leader, Kodak, the film manufacturer that was then a member of both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 index; how many of today’s Gen-Z teenagers have even heard of the brand? Less than 3 decades ago, Blackberries were ubiquitous and the iPhone did not exist; today, many teens have never even heard the former term used other than to refer to a fruit. Change for the better can happen rapidly, and businesses that do not adopt can suffer or disappear.
6. Develop strategic partnerships.
Dr. King made sure to align visible support from like-minded societal leaders outside of the African American community – (standing with him in at the head of the Selma march, for example, were a nun and a rabbi) – an effort that magnified the civil rights message and helped it influence more people faster than would have been possible otherwise. Choosing appropriate, influential partners can dramatically “spread the word” for many businesses.
7. In order to lead you must make people excited to follow.
None of Dr. King’s speeches would have accomplished anything without the large crowds of people who both listened to them, and were motivated to act based upon them. It wasn’t Dr King’s speeches themselves that influenced government officials to make society-transforming changes – it was the large number of people peacefully demonstrating, lobbying, and influencing. Nearly half a century after Dr. King’s death, in the era of the Internet, social media, and perpetually-connected smartphones it is easier than ever for people with powerful messages to motivate large numbers of people. Businesses need to keep this in mind – and act accordingly.
An earlier version of this article was originally published seven years ago by Inc Magazine at https://www.inc.com/joseph-steinberg/7-entrepreneurship-lessons-from-dr-martin-luther-king-jr.html