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Forty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stirred the passion and imagination of Americans with his dream of equality for all people. Reflecting on the life of Dr. King, I am reminded that history has demonstrated that leaders often emerge during periods of great change.

For every major turning point in American history, great leaders assumed the mantle of leadership: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman all come to mind.

What is interesting is that usually great men and women don't go looking for leadership. Instead, leadership finds them.

When Dr. King received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, he said, "History has thrust me into this position. I neither started the protest, nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people." King's words remind me of Plato's, "Only those who do not seek power are qualified to hold it."

It's as if you want it, you shouldn't have it. Instead, if you commit to other things, leadership will come. What do people who become great leaders commit themselves to that lead them to greatness?

Here are four key commitments:
  1. They commit themselves to growth.
    King was a lifelong learner. "I question and soul-search constantly to be as certain as I can that I am fulfilling the true meaning of my work, maintaining my sense of purpose, holding fast to my ideals, and that I am guiding my people in the right direction."

    Coretta Scott King confirms this by saying that King, "Worked so hard and studied constantly—long after he became a world figure."
  2. They commit themselves to a larger than life vision.
    King saw the civil rights movement as the continuation "of that noble journey toward the goals reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Constitution itself, the Bill of Rights, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments to the Constitution."

    Dr. King portrayed the movement as not simply a conflict between white people and black people, but a struggle between "justice and injustice."
  3. They commit themselves to action.
    Dr. King always advocated specific and practical initiatives. Great leaders point to the problem and then clearly give several solutions. He would ask how is it that we can have all the great technology in America and yet cannot make the Constitution work at a luncheonette in a southern town.

    "What is needed," he said, "is a strategy for change, a tactical program that will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind."
  4. They commit themselves to leaving a legacy.
    King said he wouldn't "have any money to leave behind" but wanted "to leave a committed life behind." This is best demonstrated in that he didn't want "a long funeral," not even "a eulogy of more than one or two minutes."

    He wanted no mention of his Nobel Peace Prize or other awards he had received. Instead, "I'd like somebody to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. Say that I was a drum major for justice, a drum major for peace, a drum major for righteousness."
Dr. King was right for the moment. He showed the nation a better way. Millions of us live with hope of an even greater future as we remember his dream of when "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't look to become a leader. Leadership found him, and because of his commitment, he was able to answer leadership's calling.

That is a great lesson for all of us to learn. When leadership finds us, will we be the kind of people who can step up and lead? What we commit to now will be the determining factor.

This article is used by permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell's
free monthly e-newsletter: Leadership Wired
available at

Author Biography

John C. Maxwell
Web site: Injoy Group
John Maxwell grew up in the 1950s in the small Midwestern city of Circleville, Ohio. John's earliest childhood memory is of knowing that he would someday be a pastor. He professed faith in Christ at the age of three, and reaffirmed that commitment when he was 13. At age 17, John began preparing for the ministry. He attended Circleville Bible College, earning his bachelor's degree in 1969. In June of that same year, he married his sweetheart, Margaret, and moved to tiny Hillham, Indiana, where he began his first pastorate.

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