In this time of lilliputian public figures -- calling Tom Daschle, paging Denny Hastert -- the life of Martin Luther King, whose birth we celebrate this week, stands out in sharp relief. Even 34 years after his death, the lessons he can teach us are of indestructible value. They are lessons of courage, justice and tolerance. And especially of the meaning of authentic leadership.
Unlike our most highly regarded presidents, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, whose source of power came from their position, King's leadership grew out of his moral authority and ability to inspire. He was the ultimate internal leader.
External leadership is when you effectively carry out the responsibilities of your position -- like Rudy Giuliani did so memorably on Sept. 11. Internal leadership comes from an inner force that compels you to make the world a better place. ``There comes a time,'' King said in 1968, ``when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.'' Unlike so many of our leaders today, King was steered by an internal compass, not the latest poll results.
He didn't draw his power base from elected office but from his ability to capture and express the dreams of a disenfranchised and restive mass of people. ``I Have a Dream'' was actually ``We have a Dream.''
As Mahatma Gandhi, whose life served as one of King's greatest inspirations, put it: ``Transformation begins when a vision that belongs to one person becomes one that belongs to many.''
In the months since Sept. 11, we've witnessed a mushrooming need to transform ourselves and our society -- to reassess our priorities and to find some purpose in our lives beyond success and money, and, indeed, beyond failure and a pink slip.
And we've come to realize that even though there is a certain kind of external leadership that can only be provided from Washington, we can no longer delegate our need for leadership to elected officials alone. Now, more than ever, we must learn to mine the greatest and most unexploited leadership resource available to us: ourselves. We need to find the next generation of leaders by looking in the mirror.
Each one of us can -- and must -- take up the gauntlet to solve the problems and right the wrongs of our times. As Martin Luther King demonstrated, you don't have to lead vast nations or command huge armies to make a difference. In fact, it can be an asset not to fit the traditional paradigm of leadership.
Because leadership is, after all, about breaking those old paradigms -- about seeing where society is stuck and providing ways to get it unstuck. And, if society is stuck at the very heart of the old leadership paradigm -- Washington, D.C. -- then getting it unstuck is the responsibility of those outside that center of power.
To show just how much the zeitgeist has shifted, this year's World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of the world's business, academic and political elite will, as part of its Global Leaders of Tomorrow Program, salute a variety of activists operating outside the traditional channels of leadership. People like Van Jones and Gillian Caldwell.
Jones is an activist lawyer who combines his litigation skills with community organizing to fight abuses in the criminal justice system. Caldwell is a filmmaker and attorney who works to promote human rights by providing video cameras and training to people in war-torn areas to document abuses they witness. You know that things have changed when the powerful elite of the World Economic Forum, meeting in New York at the end of this month, honor young bloods like Jones and Caldwell who are following in Dr. King's tradition of speaking truth to power.
In celebrating Dr. King, we are also celebrating that very American urge to take matters into our own hands, to get things done and meet the unmet needs. The Big Wheel of Leadership has spun 'round and 'round -- and now the arrow is pointing directly at us.
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