I believe the greatest speech of the 20th century was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington in August of 1963. Few speeches in human history have altered cultures and redirected nations the way that Dr. King’s speech did. Of course, his words were accompanied by other essential factors that along with them ignited true reform in our country. These included the exposure of injustices and violence against people of color, peaceful civil rights protests and marches that included both blacks and whites, courageous voices who spoke truth to power, and most notably the character of Dr. King himself.
The timing of the speech in light of the two-hundred year history of our nation, the uprising that was taking place at that time, and the setting at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial... all these placed a beautiful significance to and pressure upon what Dr. King would say. The speech that day that came to be known as the “I Have A Dream” speech would need to deliver the goods. It did that and more.
There is so much to gain from his words, but allow me to share three brief principles about communicating vision that all leaders can take from “I Have a Dream.”
Vision Begins in Discontent, but it Doesn’t Stay There
Dr. King was brutally honest about what was going on toward people of color at the time. He spends at least a third of his speech outlining injustices in detail. However, most of his speech is dedicated to a vision that transcends and overcomes these evils. In profound elegance, he paints a beautiful, compelling picture of what is possible in our nation. The “I have a dream” sequence is all about an ideal, future state that lies within us all and that could replace racial injustice.
When sharing vision, leaders must be forthright about current reality. In other words, vision is about addressing a problem, righting a wrong, or meeting a need. Leaders must share honestly about where people are and the current situation that needs to be remedied. In this sense, vision begins in the negative and leaders are the ones who are first discontent about the way things are. But, while vision starts in the negative, it doesn’t end there. Ultimately, vision is about a positive, moral solution to a real problem in the world. Leaders skilled in communicating vision speak the truth about current reality, but are able to translate that reality into a more ideal future state through the achievement of vision. When leaders communicate like this, vision inspires people to action.
Vision Speaks to the Heart
Toward the end of his speech, Dr. King said, “And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.” This statement implies the opposite as well. If America did not move in a direction toward equality, it would not become a great nation. Given everything else he had said leading up to this assertion, no one could argue with this truism. If we are to be great, racial equality must come to pass.
Beyond the “what” and “how”, vision speaks to the “why”... meaning that there is a moral rationale that must be included in sharing vision in order for it to be truly potent. Why is it important for people to believe and sacrifice for the vision? Leaders who are skilled at communicating vision answer this question in moral/spiritual terms. The achievement of a vision is not just something that would be nice to achieve. Rather, in order for people to live out their moral and/or spiritual responsibility, this vision you share should be and must be achieved. It is inherently the right thing to do. That’s why it must be done.
Leaders Must Own the Vision Themselves
This is actually the first matter of vision. Before vision is communicated, leaders must spend time wrestling with and being convicted by it to the point that they are willing to focus their own energies and give their own best efforts toward it’s achievement. They personally sacrifice for it. It is not simply “for others”, but it spills over from their heart to people who happen to be standing by. Consequently, vision is not taught to others, but caught by others. In this sense, leaders have not chosen vision. It has chosen them. They therefore must fully give themselves to its achievement and model for their people the beliefs and behaviors that will make it reality.
Most have read the text of Dr. King’s speech. Many have seen the video of it. Few have watched the video from the standpoint of vision and its communication.
You’ll notice at the beginning of the speech Dr. King is well prepared and looks down at his notes as he speaks. However, once he comes to the “I have a dream” sequence, his eyes focus upward and outward toward the horizon. He no longer needs his notes. Like a master artist, he uses descriptive, inspiring words to paint a beautiful picture of what he sees and imparts to his listeners what was already deep in his soul. He had not only dreamed this vision. He had lived it, served it and sacrificed for it... eventually even to the point of giving his very life for it.
Watching the speech one could easily see and feel that his “dream” was not separate and distinct from who he was, and it was not shared simply for the sake of others. It was his dream, and we who listened were invited to walk into it with him and visit places where “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Where his own four little children would “...not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The vision, along with Dr. King’s commitment to it, meant that he was not just sharing vision, but sharing his embodiment of it. This brought credibility to his words.
Each time I watch or listen to this speech, I visit these places in Dr. King’s dream with him. Each time I am moved with emotion and long for these places to become reality too. But more than dreaming, by design of the speech itself, I am compelled to act. I am convicted to find a semblance of the courage that I saw in this man who gave these words 57 years ago. Leader— watch the speech today and dream again. Beyond what you can learn to better communicate vision, I pray you are moved to apply the dream, Dr. King's dream, to your own life and leadership.