August 28, 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to more than 250,000 civil rights supporters during the March for Jobs and Freedom event. Near the end of the address Dr. King departed from his prepared remarks for a largely improvised oration that has become the most famous part of the speech.
Scholars have hailed Dr. King’s effort that day as a masterpiece of rhetoric. He does employ a rhetorical tool rather effectively throughout the speech by repeating key phrases, the most frequent being “I have a dream…” King expertly weaves the secular freedoms promised at our nation’s founding with the justice described in the Bible as God’s will for everyone.
Why has King’s speech endured fifty years after it debuted? Is it simply because of the power of his rhetoric? I believe it is his envisioned future, depicting our nation as a place of hope and optimism for all, that has enabled this speech to stand the test of time. It was his ability to articulate with words what all of us know to be true—we wish to be free regardless of race, religion, or any other societal label.
Today’s leaders seem woefully inept at inspiring hope or optimism. They may offer hollow promises but rarely touch the soul and spirit like King did that day. His dream didn’t pit one class against another or suggest that we can’t survive without another government program. Instead he envisioned everyone sharing and contributing equally to his dream for America.
Effective leaders recognize the importance of dreams and visions as they lead followers into an uncertain future. They are positive and passionate about what they believe and invite others to contribute to the cause. These leaders inspire employees or citizens to share their aspirations and empower them to make a difference. They also encourage new solutions to emerge from what is already working within the organization.
Dr. King’s eloquence certainly contributed to the overall impact of his speech that day but it was the quality and clarity of the message that endures fifty years later. Your leadership vision doesn’t require a degree in rhetoric to be effective. Instead, focus on describing a clear and compelling dream for the future of your enterprise, a dream that is hopeful and optimistic. Then invite others to join you on the journey as you turn that dream into a reality.
Image: istockphoto.com (editorial use license)