Creative tension and other lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last night I attended a panel discussion at the Washington National Cathedral on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” The panel included U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey; Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter; American civil rights leader Julian Bond; Washington National Cathedral Dean Gary Hall; and moderator Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.

During the discussion, several themes emerged that not only seemed relevant to my work but actually altered my thinking. As a result, my ideas of yesterday are refashioned this morning with more context and an improved sense of purpose. We often hear the term “living legacy,” and it occurs to me that this is what that term really means. It means that a person’s character can be so powerful that it continues to shape the minds of ordinary people decades into the future.

I’m also aware now of how influenced I am by the times I’m living in. My notes for this very blog post reflect ideas that were shaped by events and personal experiences in the last 10 years or so. In fact, the more recent events have the greatest influence. What I seek to add to my work now is a richer historical context, a deeper intellectual and moral footing, and a sense of timelessness that is more meaningful than any empirical study.

Creative nonviolent tension

At one point in the discussion last night, Walter Isaacson used the term “creative nonviolent tension.” Having worked in creative endeavors throughout my career, I am extremely familiar with the term “creative tension.” The tension, or pressure, reveals a conflict that must be resolved. However, I’ve never heard the word “nonviolent” sandwiched into that term.

According to Isaacson, Martin Luther King used creative nonviolent tension to draw out the silent majority, the silence of his friends, the people who believed in his cause but failed to act.

It’s why King submitted to being jailed in the manner that he did. His objective was to push ordinary people, people like me, out of their comfort zone by making them feel compelled to correct a great injustice.

A small injustice can be overlooked and even a thousand small injustices can be erased from our collective consciousness. But a great injustice strikes at the marrow of our very humanity and keeps us from sleeping. It gnaws at us during the day and steals our peace of mind.

Today, the topic I study, “trust,” has reached a fevered pitch in our society. How do we employ creative nonviolent tension to draw out better values from each individual instead of relying on rules on enforcement? How do companies inspire otherwise apathetic bystanders to give voice to their values and deter small infractions before they grow? It seems to me that this concept has direct relevance to the battles being waged today, because acts of wanton greed don’t occur in a vacuum.

Keeping culture alive

Every business, organization, and family struggles to keep culture alive. Unfortunately, our own culture doesn’t celebrate many of the activities that will sustain it. We are predisposed to prefer future events over the past. Even the study of world wars seems like a dusty occupation. Consciously, we know that remembering the past is the only thing that will keep us from repeating it. And yet, we continue to treat history as something to archive.

Last night’s panel discussion was convened to keep culture alive by igniting a discussion on values and principles that form the fabric of our national identity. But, my biggest lesson about keeping culture alive came from Dr. Eric L. Motley’s blog post on the Aspen Institute website entitled, “The Living Legacy of ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’”. Motley is the managing director at Aspen and his story vividly recalls the first time he read King’s Letter.

It wasn’t in a college history class. No teacher or manager or colleague invited him to read the Letter. Rather it was his own grandfather who handed him a copy of the Letter and then sat patiently while Motley read it out loud. He says this was his family custom, to read things out loud to each other. And I thought: “how remarkable!”

There in the home where he grew up, King’s Letter came back to life through a young boy’s voice and an old man’s patience. Motley says his grandfather cried while he read the letter and that one detail reveals the life words can have, stories can have, when we breathe them back into existence.

To give credence to the past slows down the present. Our pursuits of the moment take a back seat and it’s never really clear when to charge ahead and when to listen to voices from the past. Maybe that’s what leadership really means: to help us oscillate between passionate pursuits of the moment and a heartfelt exploration of the past.

As a mom, I now know that I must find artifacts of significance and breathe them to life in my home with my children, because archiving history is wasteful. Moreover, companies and other organizations must learn more than the power of story, they must learn to keep their culture alive by sharing the experience of culture together in small group discussions. Otherwise, culture will wither and decay.

Leadership credo

Over a year ago, I helped a business executive shape her personal Leadership Credo and then I wrote an essay about why each one of us must take the time to crystalize our own principles and values. Credo actually means “I give my heart to,” and a Personal Credo guides us to say and do things that stem from our truest self.

Quite simply, the values we want to see in the world are the values we must live. But we cannot learn to live them by looking out at the world. We must bring them into the world and share them vividly with every one we meet. To find our own credo, we have to listen to our heart, give words to those beliefs, and then breathe life into them every day.

Last night, Walter Isaacson said the word, “values” so many times that I lost count. It was just enough, though, to keep me from listening to the panel through an historical context. Isaacson was actively drawing us out of the past and into the present. He didn’t want history to be archived, either; he wanted the audience to see the living possibilities that come from celebrating values.

Can we characterize this “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” as King’s personal credo? It certainly clarifies the issues he had given his heart to. And what power comes from the heart! What a great force this letter has to affect ordinary people in their ordinary lives almost 50 years after this man has passed away.

Maybe we’re seeking to fortify trust in society in all the wrong ways. Maybe policy, regulations, and punishment have a finite value in the quest to build a society shaped by ethics and values. Maybe we have to encourage people to live a life they have given their heart to. Could it really be that simple?

If you’d like to read my essay about Personal Credo, you can find it here: Why Every Leader Needs a Personal Credo

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