In a January blog, Dean Bruner reflected on Dr. King’s legacy, particularly the concept of servant-leadership. It inspired me to extend the conversation to Black History Month.

Black History Month has traditionally been a time set aside to recognize the terrific accomplishments of African-Americans. Indeed, there are many breakthroughs to acknowledge.

Reflecting on the achievements of others may stir within us the very human desire to be great, and to be recognized ourselves. In fact, during the course of a Black History Month program or after an announcement of “Today’s Black History Fact,” our grade school teachers likely implored us to consider how we might make “make the race proud.” Dutifully, we may have declared (depending on age) “I’m going to be the next music mogul like Quincy Jones or Sean (Jay-Z) Carter.” Or, “I’m going to become a world class surgeon like Dr. Ben Carson,” or “My goal is to be a stateswoman like Dr. Condolezza Rice.”

Unquestionably, these individuals applied the admirable qualities of persistence, innovation, and faith to achieve their goals. None of them received their high positions or world-renown as a birthright. Dr. Rice details in her recent memoir, No Higher Honor, the long hours, rigorous study, and incessant travel she completed in order to serve effectively as the first African-American female National Security Advisor, and later the Secretary of State.

Yet, it would be a mistake, at best, to allow admiration for others’ greatness to fuel our own engines of self-promotion. Yes, in each of us, there lies a hungry desire to be recognized—to see our name and unparalleled success profiled in Black Enterprise, the Wall Street Journal, or the Harvard Business Review. While we appear to celebrate their achievements, we may—just a little—be coveting their sustained celebrity, and plotting to obtain the same for ourselves.

Dr. King’s sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” provides exceptional (and, of course, eloquent) guidance on how to avoid this pitfall. He says that while “we all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade,” what is more important is to be “first in love…first in excellence…first in generosity.” These are the foundations of servant-leadership. Where the “drum-major instinct” fosters “exclusivism” and “destructive race prejudice,” servant leadership unifies, encourage and builds better communities, better companies, better societies.

The opportunities to be a servant leader are open to all: “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subjects and verbs agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve…You only need a heart full of grace.”

As the recent and historic Facebook initial public offering demonstrates, our society values and encourages self-promotion. We have an insatiable appetite for ourselves. The challenge to turn away from orchestrating the enchanting world of me to serving the greater, less-glamourous community of us is daunting.

Perhaps, then, this is the excellent assignment for Black History Month 2012: Use the twenty-nine days to honor the incredible “firsts”, honestly explore our own motivations to emulate their success, and to properly harness the “drum-major instinct” within us.

A version of this writing appears on the BBSF website.


Rhonda Henderson, Second Year Student