Remarks at Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Luncheon During Aptissimi Leadership Conference

Jan. 22, 2012

I am very happy to be with you this afternoon.  As you return for the spring semester, I am beginning my third week on the job!  Over the past two weeks, I have been busy working with the administration and staff, but I also have enjoyed the opportunity to speak briefly with the student group going to Tanzania, and last Friday I was invited to make a few  remarks at the final lunch for the week-long Community and Public Leadership Workshop.

Today, I find myself addressing another student-focused program for emerging leaders.  As these events remind me, and I'm sure make clear to you, Jesuit higher education has, as an important aspect of its mission, the formation of leaders who will engage and transform our world;  leaders whose holistic education demonstrates how rigorous academic endeavors can help them to see the world differently, and whose engagement with the realities and needs of our world frame new questions and opportunities for academic study and research, as well as new ways of living and serving others.

Today, one week after our national holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are invoking his example as an inspiration for our efforts, and I wish to reference his experience and values as a context for my brief reflections.

Each year at this time I typically reread parts of James Cone's powerful work:  Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare.  Published in 1993, 20 years after the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X, Dr. Cone writes as a theologian whose perspective on Christianity was deeply influenced by Dr. King, and whose understanding of black consciousness was shaped by Malcolm X. 

I mention this work because both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, two of the most significant leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, approached their world with seemingly very different experiences of family life, faith, education and perceptions of being black in America, but over the course of their respective lives learned important lessons from each other.

This afternoon in these brief remarks, I don't intend to reconstruct Dr. Cone's thesis, but rather to use some of the general categories he used in his study to talk about your emerging leadership.

First of all, it is important to know that leadership is not simply the consequence of your education, your talents or your desire.  True leadership most typically happens when others call you to leadership in light of the gifts you have that match the needs of a particular time, place and circumstance. Enduring leadership is not so much something you decide to take on, but rather something that others see in you and call forth. 

Because leadership typically is a "call" that originates outside of oneself, it is critically important that leaders be self-aware and conscious of the blessings and limitations of their upbringing, their social class, their education, their faith tradition and their personalities. Knowing who you are and who you aren't, and being comfortable with your strengths and limitations, is critical in a good leader.  Being comfortable surrounded by and relying on even more or differently talented and competent colleagues is the mark of true leadership.  Further, it is critically important that leaders have close friends and family who can keep them honest and located within a circle of human love, concern and responsibilities.  When leaders get lost in their own rhetoric or PR, it is often related to a loss of significant relationships and the power of those relationships to keep one grounded.

Secondly, a leader's faith tradition and religious community can be a wonderful source of identity, strength and healing.  Both Dr. King and Malcolm X found their core values in their respective religious traditions:  Christianity and the Muslim faith. As leaders, their ability to face suffering, rejection and even death ultimately was sustained by the strength of their religious Faith.  As their "call" to lead evolved over time, both men also had to confront the limitations of their faith traditions and refine their understanding of them.  But neither abandoned their active participation in their faith communities and each held significant positions of leadership in them.  This is what adult faith asks of all of us.  We need to be educated in our faith, engaged with it and responsible to it, but also, as we mature, responsible for the integrity of our faith communities.

Martin Luther King, Jr. received his M.Div. from Crozer Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University. Malcolm X's education came from the streets and later as a consequence of his conversion to the Nation of Islam while in prison. Although very differently educated, both men were also life-long learners committed to constant reading, continual contact with contemporary thinkers, extensive travel and exposure to new ideas, and habits of reflectivity, which helped them to digest and apply what they were learning to the benefit of the movements they led.  The life of the mind critically informed their strategic choices, the direction of their movements and their personal perspectives in ways that eventually drew each of them subtly toward each other's apparently opposite perspectives.  Their experience reminds us that to remain engaged and effective, leaders must nurture their intellectual lives and be free enough to look for some common truths in those with whom they might disagree.  This inability in many of today's political, social and religious leaders has not served well our country or our world.

Finally, because of the vast differences between their personal histories, faith traditions and education, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had extremely different experiences of living as African-Americans in the United States.  While their differences led them to radically different ways of responding to civil rights, political and economic strategies, race relations, and attitudes toward violence, war and pacifism, neither ever stopped growing and changing.  As Malcolm X slowly became more open to the possibilities of separate but mutually engaged black and white communities sharing a common commitment, Dr. King became increasingly more prophetic in his criticism of leaders who were too protective of the status quo and refused to see the connection between poverty, war and civil rights.  In hindsight, we can now see this incipient turning toward the truth of the other even if in a very modified form.  Dr. King and Malcolm X found some limited but significant common ground in their shared suffering and in seeking solutions for human need.  Had they lived longer, who knows what might have evolved as a consequence of their shared concern?  It seems to me that real leaders know how to claim their truth and live it, and how to keep aware of movements and truths that offer some complementarity.

As student leaders here on campus and beyond, I hope that you continually grow in self-awareness and openness to others, that you value and remain committed to nurturing your most important relationships not only for support but also to keep you grounded, that you cherish those traditions and communities that have given you your core values and that you interact with them with an increasing sense of responsibility not only to them but for them, and that you aren't afraid to see in those whose perspectives seem different truths that might contribute to your work to promote human development.