Learning Leadership and Parenting from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and My Children

January 18, 2010 / General /

Guest author: Lynn Perry Wooten

Parenting has given me a new lens to explore positive leadership practices. Although I preach the same lessons to my children that I teach to my students, these lessons take on a new meaning when heard by my children. This week gives me an occasion to present a historical case study of positive leadership in action for my children by integrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with Lynn-isms of positive leadership practices.

When I asked my children what are the positive leadership practices that I talk about over and over again, their long list included the following three “Lynn-isms”:

1. Play to Your Strengths

Dr. King spent his life crafting a career calling that played to his strengths. As a teen, he realized that public speaking was a talent of his and decided to invest his time and energy to develop this strength.  To prepare for a speaking engagement, Dr. King spent hours on research, studied the speeches of others for oratorical cues, and practiced to perfect his speeches.  Dr. King’s investment in oratorical skills enabled him to use his speeches to mobilize non-violent participation in the Civil Rights movement. As noted by Roberts and her colleagues [1], when we play to our strengths, we create a pathway for excellence by expanding our possible selves, enhancing personal expressiveness, and creating contexts to leverage strengths. To expand one’s possible self is to be visionary about the person you can become and focus your thoughts and actions into achieving this goal. As described by Waterman [2], to expand personal expressiveness is to go beyond just thinking about one’s strength and become intensely alive, committed, and passionate to one’s strengths. Whereas, creating a context to leverage strengths entails designing situations that enhance and showcase strengths. Moreover, it involves forming connections with individuals who enable you to thrive as you develop and demonstrate your strengths.

Application: Dr. King’s ability to use his strengths can serve as a role model for our children.  Dr. King not only discovered his strength for public speaking at a young age, but also became passionate about the use of this strength and took a disciplined approach to develop it. Working together, both children and their parents can identify strengths and map out plans for how to enhance strengths through academic and extra-curricular activities. In addition, parents can provide the opportunity for their children to meet people who have similar strengths and use these strengths for their career, hobbies, or volunteer activities.  Often teens, appreciate and respect mentoring from people other than their parents because these relationships provide a different perspective on how an individual uses his or her strengths.

2. Think about the “We story” and not just the “I story.”

Another aspect of Dr. King’s positive leadership practice that I admire was his ability to think about the “We story”.  In their book, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, Zander and Zander [3] define the “We story” as an ability to see ourselves naturally engaged and forever in a dance with others. The “We story” focuses on relationships rather than the individual. It emerges when we set aside fear, competition, and struggles to craft a story of possibilities. Thus, the “We story” conveys a sense of otherness and a tale of inclusion.

In the case of Dr. King, the public display of the “We story” was evident in his courage to speak up for social justice and equality on behalf of people that society did not hear. However, Dr. King’s positive leadership practices were not confined to his speeches. When off stage, Dr. King was known for his listening skills and the ability to bring together diverse opinions for developing win-win situations that resulted in balance and unity.

Application: For teens, it is often difficult to think beyond the “I story,” but when they can it becomes a very uplifting experience. For example, when my son and daughter pair up on a project, the fruits of their labor tend to be more rewarding.  Similarly, when my son’s tennis team or my daughter’s Girl Scouts troop create a “We story” the enthusiasm in their voices and positive energy fills up the room. Creating a “We story” teaches our children the value of working with others for a common good and the power of team work.  As a parent, I try to remind myself of the times when my children and I can construct “We stories”.  This often requires me to focus more on listening and less on thinking I am the adult that knows everything.  Also, it is about creating situations where I can take a back seat so that everyone can have a starring role in the “We story.”

3. Be a contributor

Dr. King’s life exemplified the importance of being a contributor. Dr. King wanted people to remember him for dedicating his life to serving others. He tried to “walk the talk” of servant leadership by being concerned about the betterment of conditions for others, and Dr. King believed “everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”  Likewise, my children often hear me say the adage spoken by Shirley Chisholm and others, “Service is the rent we pay for living on this earth.” Thus, community service is the one area that we can all be a contributor.

Application: As parents, we can instill positive leadership practices in our children by getting them involved in community service projects, such as making a quilt for a person in a nursing home, collecting coins for Haitian earthquake victims, or volunteering at a Head Start program. Last year, I think a service learning trip to New Orleans with his schoolmates was my son’s best spring break. I believe this is because the feeling of being a contributor fulfills psychological needs beyond expectations and has positive ripple effects for both the giver and the receiver.


In closing, maybe teaching our children about positive leadership is similar to Dr. King’s description of the effective drum major that was described in one of his last speeches.   Dr. King described the drum major as one that achieves distinction and leads the parade with their strengths, but he or she is also one that is first in moral excellence and generosity.  Each day, we have a chance to help our children become effective drum majors. Seize the opportunity!



[1] Roberts, L. Morgan, Dutton, J.E., Spreitzer, G., Heaphy, E., & Quinn, R. (2005). Composing the reflected best-self portrait: Building pathways to becoming extraordinary in work organizations. Academy of Management Review, 30: 712-736.

[2] Waterman, A. S. 1993. Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,64: 678–691.

[3] Zander, R. and Zander. S. (2002). The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.