Last week, I was in Memphis speaking at the Tennessee Municipal League annual conference. While there, I took the time to visit the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. I stood in the parking lot beneath the second-floor balcony where King was shot and was stunned by the smallness and intense normalcy of the setting. The place where one of the darkest chapters of our American history was written was overwhelmingly mundane.
There is absolutely nothing exceptional about the motel — nothing that would make it stand out — nothing that would make you take even a second look at it as you drove by. As I pondered the intense routineness of the place, it struck me that the same thing could be said of the very reason for King’s visit to Memphis. He was there to support striking sanitation workers in their desire to be treated like everyone else — an intensely normal desire and expectation.
I suspect the typical American thinks the strike was over money, but the strike was ignited over the deaths of two sanitation workers (Echol Cole and Robert Walker) who were crushed to death in the compactor of their garbage truck. In 1968, city rules prohibited black sanitation workers from seeking shelter from the rain anywhere except in the back of their compressor truck, along with all of the garbage. Read that again. The city rules at that time prohibited black sanitation workers from seeking shelter from the rain anywhere except in the back of their compressor truck along with all of the garbage.
King was in Memphis to draw attention and give voice to sanitation workers who wanted to have options other than crawling into the compactor of a garbage truck and huddling amongst the refuse to get out of the rain. What could be more intensely normal than the need to be given such a basic level of human respect?
Great leadership rarely occurs with flashes of lightening and the blowing of trumpets or in the midst of pandering to the popular opinion of the moment. Instead, great leadership is most often found in those leaders who are in tune with and understand how to hear and connect with and give voice to the intensely normal every day needs of their followers — and the courage to lead.
If you want to be a great leader, listen to the hearts of your followers; give voice to their aspirations; and be courageous enough to lead even when the temptation to pander to the status quo is overwhelming. Rise to the challenge and start changing the world today.