“Drum Major” vs. Servant Leader: An Appreciation for the Life of Martin Luther King

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, an opportunity to reflect on his ideas and their relevance to Darden’s mission, to “improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs.” Events are planned at Darden, the University of Virginia and the City of Charlottesville to observe the holiday. See especially Darden’s event on January 24th. Let me offer one reflection to help set the stage.

The recent controversy over the “drum major” quote that appears on the side of the new Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, D.C., sent me back to read the original. The source is a sermon titled, “The Drum Major Instinct,” preached by King on February 4, 1968, a couple of months before his assassination. In it, King addresses the person who seeks to lead for the recognition, importance, power and glory of it. He said, “And there is, deep down within all of us, an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs a whole gamut of life.”

King acknowledged that the drum major instinct is universal to humanity. But the problem is that left unharnessed, the drum major instinct can become destructive: egotism, boastfulness, narcissism; the world is all about “me.” The drum major instinct can lead to feelings of exclusivity, and policies of segregation and racism: trying to push others down in order to push yourself up. King said, “the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct.”

Surely, the drum major instinct is a problem for the development of leaders. So much of what we understand about the development of effective leaders in 2012 is not about the leader’s attitude of “me,” but rather the attitude regarding “them,” the people one leads. So much about achieving success in business is about leading diverse teams, promoting collaboration, and gaining extraordinary results through the work of many ordinary people. This suggests a very different attitude on the part of the leader.

Back in 1968, King offered some insights into the nature of this different attitude. True leadership is not bestowed, rather,

“You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism but by fitness…If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s your new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it…by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

In short, King was an early champion for the concept of servant leadership. And the notion that “everybody can serve” is relevant today in the notion of “leading from where you are”—that is, we can think of leaders as occurring at all levels of an organization. Leadership is not an attribute simply of the CEO. High performance organizations see leadership in teams at the customer interface, on the assembly line, and in the design studios—anywhere employees come together to strive for results.

Business schools at non-secular universities are not likely to say much about leaders needing to have “a heart full of grace” and a “soul generated by love.” But the manifestations of love and grace are qualities such as respect for the dignity of others, positive engagement with those around you, delegation of responsibilities, attention to the growth and development of one’s employees, and a sense of stewardship for the enterprise: you are not merely operating the business, you are strengthening it for the next generation. I do think that these are qualities of some of the greatest leaders and are often forgotten in the lingo that b-schools use.

Above all, I appreciate King’s notion that true leadership is earned, not bestowed. I have seen leaders founder in the mistaken belief that their move into the corner office meant that their followers were always right behind. I think you win followers through trust and integrity. Authoritarian or laissez-faire leaders eventually stumble because they don’t earn their followers.

For all these good reasons, Martin Luther King, Jr. warrants an annual remembrance. Through his deeds and words, he reminds us of important lessons relevant to our own growth as individual leaders and as a society.

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3 Responses to “Drum Major” vs. Servant Leader: An Appreciation for the Life of Martin Luther King

  1. I continue to read and pass on to friends the writing of Bob Bruner, dean of the Darden School at UVa. Why? Because it’s at the top of the small stack of intelligent, non-partisan, education-oriented writing that I see today. It’s also filled with good business ideas.
    I hope you enjoy this latest entry, and that you’ll share any comments you have with me.
    May our new year be bright, shiny and replete with servant leadership!

  2. Rhonda Henderson says:

    While this post was written nearly a month ago, it is quite timely in that it relates to a discussion in Managerial Psychology just last last week. Our class has read “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and we were encouraged to think about our purpose. All of us have the potential and call to lead, and hopefully we’ll embrace King’s notion of “servant-leadership.”

  3. Bill says:

    Servant leadership is quite the buzzword now compared to when you wrote this article last year. The company I work for (Major Canadian airline) is focussing on servant leadership as the top down approach is not working anymore for most growing businesses. The best way for growth anywhere whether public or private sector is to enable the workers by pulling the politics away from them and letting them get things done.

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