Living into the challenge: A Reflection on the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A great deal has been written about how leaders transform those around them. Rather less is said about how transformations change leaders too. The life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives an important insight into the latter: one must “live into” one’s challenges. This affords a valuable reflection today, when we honor King’s memory.

In the spring of 1960, Martin Luther King could look back on a few years of struggle against racism and wonder whether it had been worth it. Many of the most transformational changes on which he is known to have had great influence, lay ahead, later in the 1960s—the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and War on Poverty, and most importantly a shift in public opinion against racism. As of 1960, King and his followers had made great sacrifices on behalf of their cause. But was it worth it? King took stock of his experience and wrote,

Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing. So in a real sense I have been battered by the storms of persecution. I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden, and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But every time such a temptation appeared something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. [1]

How King confronted the adversity of his calling warrants reflection. He wrote,

My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive…. The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. [2]

To borrow a phrase from my friend, Jim Baker, Martin Luther King “lived into” his ordeal. The concept of living into a challenge is hugely important to the development of leaders. To “live into” something is to go beyond intellectualizing it: you must practice it, embrace and accept the consequences, learn from them, and go on. King is not alone in this. Consider three other examples:

  • Gabrielle Giffords lives into her tragic assassination attempt with a new sense of purpose about gun control. She wrote recently: “I’ve spent the past three years learning how to talk again, how to walk again. I had to learn to sign my name with my left hand. It’s gritty, painful, frustrating work, every day. Rehab is endlessly repetitive. And it’s never easy, because once you’ve mastered some movement or action or word, no matter how small, you move on to the next. You never rest. I asked myself, if simply completing a normal day requires so much work, how would I ever be able to fulfill a larger purpose? The killing of children at the school in Sandy Hook a little over a year ago gave me my answer.”
  • Helen Keller lived into her deaf-blind condition by becoming a leading writer and advocate for people with disabilities. She wrote, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved….All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.”
  • Viktor Frankl found purpose even in helping others in their struggles at Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He added, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”

One could cite many other possible examples: Gandhi, Mandela, and Solzhenitsyn, to name a few.

Of all of these exemplars, Martin Luther King explains perhaps best what it means to “live into” a challenge: it is to “transform the suffering into a creative force…to make of it a virtue.” The reason that this is an important lesson is that it illuminates a foundational idea about learning and human development: one grows profoundly through experience rather than observation. The next generation of leaders who have the depth of character and impact of King and other exemplars will likely draw not only from what they learned, but how.

I have written about the types of knowledge one might want to acquire, and how they can best be delivered. Explicit knowledge (names, dates, formulas) is easily absorbed from readings, lectures, MOOCs, simple problem sets, etc. And then there is tacit knowledge, the stuff that is gained by feel. An important aspect of tacit knowledge is that one learns by doing, ideally in collaboration or under mentorship by others. Explicit knowledge can be stored in libraries and on hard drives; tacit knowledge cannot. Skills such as bicycle riding, kneading bread, mastering a musical instrument, suturing a wound, public speaking, interviewing for a job, negotiating and selling reflect tacit knowledge—you can read all you want to about these skills, but you’ll only master them by doing them. In other words, you’ll only master them by living into them.

Martin Luther King was highly educated for leadership; but he really learned to be a transformational leader by living in to the struggle against racism. His example helps aspiring leaders to anticipate their own growth path: find the creative kernel in any struggle; make it a virtue; live into the challenge. This Martin Luther King, Jr. day in 2014, is a worthy moment to pause and reflect on the sources of your own growth.

  1. “Suffering and Faith” Christian Century, April 1960. []
  2. ibid. []
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