One morning in 1965, Robert Ellis Smith, then-recent Harvard University graduate, received a phone call that would change his life. On the other end was a former fellow student who was starting a newspaper in Montgomery, Ala., strictly dedicated to covering the Civil Rights Movement. The voice on the other line asked Smith, former president of The Harvard Crimson, to lead the project. Without hesitation, he took the job and headed down to the Deep South.
“There wasn’t a lot of newspaper coverage of small communities, so that is where we put our focus,” he says, adding that the newspaper was titled The Southern Courier. “We also wanted to produce a publication that would be read by both blacks and whites, which was a new concept at the time.”
For the next year, he covered the movement and often interviewed the legendary Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to remembering his lively sense of humor, Smith recalls King’s superior leadership ability—evident in one particular exchange.
“Coming up on December 1965, the 10th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott, I called Dr. King to ask him to write a piece for our publication,” says Smith.
When King turned in the article a few days later, Smith was struck by references to Greek philosophers and became worried that the words would not resonate with King’s largely uneducated audience. Even so, Smith ran King’s piece on the front page and the next day’s paper was a big seller.
Today, Smith lives in Providence, RI, and is founder and publisher of Privacy Journal, a monthly newsletter focused on personal security. As a small business owner himself, he looks back on his time covering the South and gleans leadership lessons from King that he uses in his own business to this day.
Don’t underestimate low-level employees
Just as King didn’t hesitate to quote philosophers in his written pieces, great small business leaders should not underestimate even the lowest level employees in their organizations.
“I was worried about the references, but he assured me that wisdom is present in people even in the most humble circumstances,” remembers Smith. “He taught me never to underestimate anyone below me, that they have wisdom, life experience and are introspective.”
King didn’t hide his fear. He was scared before every speech and worried that his points wouldn’t be well received or that he would be met with violent protests, says Smith. But instead of hiding, he talked about it and faced his fear head on.
“He used to tell me, ‘If you are not anxious, that means you are not engaged, that you shouldn’t fear fear, you should go with it,’” recalls Smith.
King’s willingness to embrace his fear is a great lesson for small business owners. As Smith says, entrepreneurs may fear competition and new technology in today’s business environment, but instead of shying away it is important to face these obstacles head on and not to be afraid of change.
Encourage ‘creative tension’
Every time King visited a new city to spread his message, community leaders would blame him for disturbing the norm. But to King, that was the point.
“He used to use the word ‘creative tension’ to explain that fairness and change come only when you shake things up,” says Smith.
Today’s small business owners can use this lesson within their own organizations by encouraging new ideas and internal criticism from employees, he notes.
Know the ‘why’
Over in Washington, D.C., Daron Pressley may not have known King personally, but as a small business owner, he looks to the Civil Rights icon as a beacon of inspiration in his company.
“I think Dr. King’s biggest leadership lesson that translates to my business is to make sure my team knows why we do what we do,” says Pressley, founder of The Premier Athlete, a student athlete development company. “It isn’t just to make a profit, it is knowing your purpose, cause and belief.”
Instead of giving an 'I Have a Plan' speech, King gave his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech, says Pressley. He recommends small business owners use this fact to talk to employees about what they believe, the real reason for starting their business and whom the business is helping. By doing this, entrepreneurs can inspire those around them, just like King did.
King inspired community involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, and it worked partly because people wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves, notes Don Phillips, author of Martin Luther King, Jr., on Leadership: Inspiration and Wisdom for Challenging Times.
“In a small business, people really perform when they feel like they are part of something special,” he says. “King used to say ‘people derive inspiration from involvement,’ so the lesson is to get your people involved.”
Phillips says small business owners can utilize King’s words by involving all levels of the organization in company goal planning. You never know what great ideas will surface.