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How Martin Luther King Jr. Can Teach Project Managers to Inspire

King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up.

John Legend, “Glory,” From the Motion Picture, Selma.

There are only three types of followers:

  • Those that do what they are told.
  • Those that do what they are told, and agree with what they are told to do.
  • Those that do what they are told, agree with what they are told to do, and want to do it.

The best kind of leader inspires the third kind of follower. They able to reach into the soul of a project and translate it into a benefit to the whole.

Martin Luther King Jr. was just that kind of leader.

His followers could have responded to his call to action with apathy (“I am marching with my friends”), with passion (“I am marching with my friends for civil rights”), or with inspiration (“I am marching for a more righteous America”).

People perform better when they understand how they fit into the overall vision of the project. This is why Martin Luther King Jr. is a man of legend, and why he is the ultimate teacher on inspirational leadership.

Upon investigating Dr. King’s life, it’s clear that he used four tactics to keep his followers engaged and enthusiastic.

Emphasize the greater vision.

martin luther king jr. can teach project managers

via Geoff Livingston, Flickr

Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

As was made most famous in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. was a master of crafting a vision for his followers. He appealed to higher ideals to charm the dreamer and inspire the doer. There was never a question of the overarching goal that Dr. King was fighting for: equality.

While Dr. King largely relied on rhetoric to communicate his goals for this country, project managers can use a variety of tools to make the greater importance of the projects they are working on known. Draw up plans to show how this individual project aids your company’s success. Tie performance appraisal software into project successes.

Take a step back from the nitty-gritty of developing a new system or constructing a new building and ask yourself: what does this project teach me? How does this project benefit my company? How does this project benefit my community? Zeroing in on the bigger role your project is playing in your life and the lives around you will help you decipher the best language to inspire your team.

Have a vision that is both entrenched in reality and worth investing in.


Whatever career you may choose for yourself—doctor, lawyer, teacher—let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not start his career preaching about mountain tops and dreams. Instead, he always communicated a sober assessment of the American mindset and perils facing black Americans. He carefully broke out what needed to be accomplished to achieve his objectives (such as the end of employment discrimination, equal access to voter registration, and ending racial discrimination in public schools) and tied these ideas to greater values (such as “love,” “equality,” and “justice”).

Doing so made specific policy objectives more palatable to the largely-white American public—he had specific goals tied to higher purpose. His presentation helped his cause reach unlikely white influencers (like Jews and Mormons) to help sway overall public opinion toward supporting black rights.

Project managers can have great dreams for their company or their teams, but they must make sure their vision is secured in reality. When starting a project, establish a scope baseline as a part of a greater scope management plan. Keep your stakeholders involved in your project with consistent communication and collaboration. Finally, communicate why your project is worth investing in at all points in the process.

Empower your team to act.


I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

All too often, a leader can get so captivated with his dreams and goals that he forgets those who surround him or her. That reality was never a possibility for Dr. King. In each of his iconic speeches, he takes the time to thank those who are acting on his behalf to strive for black civil rights. But he also planned out specific actions for his followers—including when and how they should protest the status quo. While these individuals could have peacefully protested and gone to jail on their own, it was Martin Luther King Jr.’s coordination that made the protest so visible and effective.

Whether a team is coming together to fight for civil rights or to finish their work before a deadline, it’s important for that team’s leader to provide direction and helpful tools. Use project management software to keep your team apprised of what’s happening from start to finish. Provide transparency to your project’s plan, and take the time to explain why you’re using Scrum, LEAN, Waterfall, or any other planning method.

Lead from the front.


A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.

If Dr. King hadn’t endured the same kind of abuse that other black Americans endured, his credibility as a leader would have suffered. He exercised servant leadership to its fullest extent, and people still adore him today for it.

Project managers should remember to reign in their egos while in the trenches of a project. If your team needs more hands—be it administrative work or more complex tasks—be willing to lend a hand. Model how you want your employees to act in the office. Be the dedicated worker that you want to rest of your team to be.


Martin Luther King Jr. has innumerable lessons that he can teach on the topic of leadership and project management. What did I miss? Leave your comments below!

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