A … challenge that the new age brings to each of us is that of achieving excellency in our various fields of endeavor. In the new age many doors will be opening to us that were not opened in the past, and the great challenge which we confront is to be prepared to enter these doors as they open…

In the new age we will be forced to compete with people of all races and nationalities. Therefore, we cannot aim merely to be good Negro teachers, good Negro doctors, good Negro ministers, good Negro skilled laborers. We must set out to do a good job, irrespective of race and do it so well that nobody could do it better.

Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. Even if it does not fall in the category of one of the so-called big professions, do it well. As one college president said, “A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.” If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., December, 1956. ((“Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., December, 1956. In A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, New York, HarperCollins, copyright 1986, pages 138-139.))

In so many ways, Martin Luther King was a visionary whose words transcend their time and place to inform and inspire us today. As he spoke in 1956, America was shedding a legacy of racial segregation that had divided whites from blacks with a doctrine of “separate but equal.” King was leading the movement to integrate the races in American society. In this particular speech, he paused to look forward, to comment on the “new age” of equality between the races. The “us” to which he refers were the African-Americans. The future, he said, would be “an exciting age filled with hope.” Yet he acknowledged that integration would bring challenges: we must learn to live together; we must find forgiveness and good will; and we must acknowledge the implications of a newer and more level playing field for our talents.

With hindsight of 54 years, we would have to say that King was right and that his message is more relevant than ever. The rising generation of students will encounter a society that is incredibly more diverse than that which has prevailed in the last half-century. At the rate of current demographic trends, whites will cease being the majority (50%+) race in America a few decades from now. At the rate of current economic trends, China, India, and Brazil (who already outdistance Europe and America in rate of growth) will eclipse us in economic size by mid-century. And the role of women in society is liberalizing rapidly around the world—my own institution just announced the appointment of the first woman President in its history of nearly two centuries. It seems likely that by the centennial of King’s speech, the outcomes of this growing diversity will have come to full realization.

King’s speech implies that he foresaw that racial integration was just a piece of the larger integration that would take place in the world. Technological innovation permits conversations and the exchange of ideas outside of the former mainstream media—as Iran and China discover today. A rising standard of living induces democratization—people want a say in governing their own institutions—and engages minorities into the governance processes. Economic integration globally, regionally, and locally hastens the exchange of ideas and best practices, and disrupts old economic conditions. Cultures will change and liberalize: for instance, Darden alumnus, V.N. Dalmia (D’84) is leading a commission to integrate India’s caste of Untouchables into Indian society.

King said, “In the new age we will be forced to compete with people of all races and nationalities.” No country can build a wall high enough to keep out the impact of these changes in the world. We must get out and compete in this world, not hide from it.

In the face of these changes, King would say that it matters less how big and powerful you are. It matters how good you are. What is the quality of your work? How effective are you? What is your reputation?

King would also ask, “Are you doing your best wherever you are?” At Darden, we teach that you must lead from where you happen to be. A misconception is that you must wait until you have the mantle of CEO or some high government office to be a “leader.” In fact, anyone anywhere can “lead” by setting an example, by challenging assumptions, by offering helpful solutions, and so on. In this sense, King’s focus on the example of a street sweeper was brilliant.

January 18, 2010 is Martin Luther King Day in the United States, an occasion on which we celebrate his life and contributions to humanity. He is relevant to business professionals and business students as he is to everyone else. “We must set out to do a good job, irrespective of race and do it so well that nobody could do it better.” In a world of growing diversity, this is outstanding advice.