This is an appreciation for the life of Martin Luther King, whom we remember on this holiday. Observances today will recall his activism, courage, and oratory. The significance of this observance is amplified by its proximity to a historic event, the inauguration of America’s first African-American President. Together, these two occasions are a powerful stimulus to reflect on what it takes to live well together in a diverse society. We will hear a great deal about tolerance, justice, and respect as foundations of the Good Society—as good as these virtues are, they demand an attribute of character about which we don’t hear much these days. It is to that attribute that I direct this appreciation.

In a recent blog posting, I quoted King: “We must combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.” This is consistent with his advocacy of nonviolent resistance to racism. But it is also a vitally-important message for living well and certainly for prospering in the Darden classroom and in business life.

The paradox of tough and tender is quite simply a reminder of the value of self-discipline. Every day, students in our learning teams and classrooms learn that there is an approach to daily work that is both tough minded and respectful, temperate, measured, and courteous (or what King might call, “tender hearted”). For most people, it takes conscious effort to be both tough and tender. Many cultures reward the first person to the goal, the quick reaction, the impulsive strike. But in matters of leadership, impulse may not be the cardinal virtue. Judging by what passes for discourse on blogs, twitters, and in emails, the digital age is promoting a kind of “in your face” rage. Under the right circumstances, righteous anger can be justified. But I have seen enough people foreshorten their business effectiveness and career prospects that I doubt that open anger helps much, especially when the trail of spew is out there for clients, business associates, and recruiters to see.

An annual rite for many deans is to deal with someone in the academic community who transmits an angry, rude, demeaning, insulting, and/or profane email to the community. At University of Virginia, we are reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s maxim: “When angry, count ten before you speak. If very angry, an hundred.” What’s the lesson here?

Self-discipline matters. The classroom must balance freedom of expression with the kind of respectful discourse that actually moves us toward deeper insight, mastery, and truth. In the case-method classroom, getting to the best ideas quickly requires hard thinking plus collaboration. Such is surely true in business. The kind of self-discipline that enables tough and tender discourse is one big contribution of the movement toward diversity and inclusiveness: through it we learn the kind of mutual respect that helps the community move toward a common goal.

Here’s my appreciation for Martin Luther King: he pointed us not only toward a better society, but also toward a better personal life, and a better way of living. Living the tough, but tender, life requires great self-discipline. But the reward is immense. This, I think, is a promising spirit with which to observe the inauguration of Barak Obama: America can become a nation of greater self-discipline because it is able to get beyond a legacy of racial separation. King said, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.” May the coming years be a time of release, harmony, and illumination.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 01/19/2009 08:12:57 AM