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Walking in the Path of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The treasure of lives like that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Mother Teresa and so many others represent the spirit of our species searching for improvement and hope. They are our real heroes, far more so than the athletes, actors and politicians we seem to worship.

The symbolism of what these real heroes stood for extends far beyond the boundaries of the United States of America or any specific time or place. They are worldwide figures of respect and renown. They represent the best in our species — a next evolutionary stage in the way we all need to think about each other and act toward one another. They represent the ideals we need to instill in our children.

As many readers know, I have visited South Africa repeatedly as well as Northern Ireland to do conference keynote presentations and seminars. I witnessed firsthand how incredible it is to see persons split apart in the past — amidst religious or racial hatred and violence — bridge those artificial chasms and come together for greater achievements. If only that can happen soon in the historic “crucible of conflict” which is the Middle East.

It reminded me that in a world of caring and smart people, all things are possible. Read on and consider how you can make a difference in your own community and your own family.

King would have been 90 this year. Were he still with us, he would have lived through decades of amazing technological changes, and the continuing, if not sometimes seemingly slow progress, in America’s search to close gaps and narrow inequalities between races, between genders, between persons of different sexual orientations and between persons of different languages and national origins. He would have seen tens of millions of immigrants continuing to come to America to realize their own versions of the American dream.

It is hard to even imagine how much more progress would have been made in creating a great and equitable society if he had been able to continue as a passionate advocate.

Conventional wisdom recounts that his great contribution to the world was in the advancement of Civil Rights through non-violence. 

We can all focus on another lesson from King that as managers and administrators — not to mention as parents and community members — need to learn and practice every day. That is the importance of creating a vision and enlisting others to share in that vision to help make it a reality.  

The greatest weakness in public service is the narrowness of our vision. We spend too much time counting paper clips and not enough time looking at the long-range vision of what our city, county, country or world could be like. We focus on the memo of the day and not on the momentous changes which could happen in our world, if we only created the opening in thought and action to make these changes happen. King was able to speak with amazing eloquence about what he saw in his own mind when he went to a metaphorical mountaintop and looked at the “promised land.” 

That “land” could be a county or a country in which all people, especially children, had health care coverage and adequate healthy food. It could be a place in which senior citizens are not prevented from enjoying their final years in dignity because of the cost of prescription drugs or the lack of health insurance or the scourge of loneliness. It could be a society in which no one dropped out of school or in which the unemployment rate was statistically insignificant. 

The only hope for visions like the ones above to become real is to create a view of the future that is so compelling and so articulately presented that persons throughout the society agree to put aside lesser divisions to focus on the higher loyalty which can be developed toward the common outcome. We have done this historically in times of war, and we have done this historically in times of other national opportunities, such as the mass polio vaccination program of the 1950s. We do it every day in a sense in commercial America when we create cultural icons or “heroes” or products which sell in the millions. If only we could do this in a “micro” way in terms of the way we live and practice public administration day-to-day. 

Author Neenah Ellis, in “If I Live to Be 100….” explains the common characteristics that people with extraordinary longevity share. Based on the interviews in the book, the overriding common theme is not diet, occupation, genetics or fish oil. The common characteristic is optimism.

This is also the enduring legacy of King. In his case, the optimism was focused on closing racial and economic divides. However, his legacy can also be profoundly positive for us as individuals. It can mean a commitment to career development and personal growth on the job. It can mean looking at a vacant lot filled with litter and imagining a new senior citizens’ health and recreation facility. It can mean a personal commitment to stop smoking, exercise regularly or finish that college degree. 

There is no end to the number of positive visions which can turn into reality if we learn to move with commitment and optimism to make the changes happen. 

 

Here are a few of my favorites:

Make a commitment as a manager or executive in government to be a mentor to subordinates at work and children in the community. Be a big brother or big sister or a high school mentor. Be a teacher and a champion of the career development and success of others.

 

Find a teacher as well as be one. Commit to learn new skills. Learn to speak Spanish, Chinese or some other second language. Learn to take up hiking or photography, or one of my favorites, music.

 

Commit to personal health improvement by getting a check-up and following through on actions to reduce health risks through regular exercise, weight loss, smoking cessation, and other steps to help you live longer and live happier. Do these things and do them soon. While you’re at it, take someone with you, such as a colleague at work or a member of the family. It is easier to succeed in a plan if you have support from an understanding friend.

 

Make a major difference in the community. Be the catalyst to turn that vacant lot into a senior health center. Be a United Way or Rotary Club champion. Be a “go to” person for charities so that your own reputation is enhanced and your own leadership skills are developed. What better way to improve these personal elements in your life than by also helping other people on the way? There are no shortages of charities in the neighborhood, in the county or in the world that need your help.

 

Spend time with people you care about, including private time with yourself away from the excessive intrusions of the modern world. My dogs Isibindi and Major join me regularly, especially in the morning, for this purpose by taking walks together. It’s harder and harder to find privacy, meditation — call it what you will — but the more our lives are intruded upon by smart phones, horns honking, telemarketers, loud neighbors, etc., the more we lose some part of the essence of our individuality. 

 

Spend more time away from the television and away from the computer to pursue some personal passion.

 

Dream and plan ahead for what your own life may be like after retirement — no matter how young you are. Invest energy in not only saving for financial security but by taking steps to increase your long term “intellectual security” as well.  Think about things like where and when you might retire and what active steps, including other employment, you will take to keep alert, alive and contributing.

 

Do all these things and you will have a significant set of resolutions. You will also be walking in the path of King. Each of us individually can make the choice of whether to live our lives surrounded by large piles of paper clips or surrounded by a legacy that will make our children look back at us and say that we stood for something wonderful. 

I wish King a very heavenly birthday and you all an incredible 2019. I hope you will spend some time reliving the great “I Have a Dream” speech and remembering the power of those words.

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