12 Inspiring Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. That Can Help in Your Career
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister and activist who led a nonviolent civil rights movement in America from 1954 to 1968 to protest racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. Under King’s servant and transformational leadership, the civil rights movement ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Every year on King’s birthday or the anniversary of his death, many American reflect on his words. During this time, Americans will recall their favorite quote and reflect on the significance of his words.
Although Americans often emphasize how King’s words remain relevant today, we sometimes fail to provide guidance on how to put his words into practice.
This blog post attempts to identify some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s greatest quotes and relate them to the workplace. This post also provides some practical tips that can help professionals put King’s esteemed words into practice.
1. Taking the High Road
"Let no man pull you so low as to hate him." – MLK’s 1956 “The Most Durable Power” sermon
Conflict is often unavoidable in the workplace. If a coworker offends you, sometimes it is best to set your ego aside and simply take the high road. As former First Lady, Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”
Professional Plus tips for addressing conflict with a coworker before taking the high road:
Focus on the positive
Learn their perspective
Ask a trusted colleague for their advice
Talk to your manager
Learn to accept their personality
Address the issue respectfully
If all else fails, then you may be required to take a more diplomatic approach (taking the high road) even if it is not easy.
“3 Times It’s Better to Take the High Road” by Ashley Faus (The Muse; June 19, 2020)
“How Does Taking the High Road Affect Leadership?” by Aaron Marquis (Chron)
2. Consensus Building
"Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus." – MLK’s November 1967 “The Domestic Impact of the War in Vietnam” speech
In a consensus, all members work towards developing a solution that benefits the entire team. Reaching a consensus, however, can be complex and requires team leaders to be actively involved in building a consensus. Strong leadership is important when “molding” a consensus because without strong leadership consensus building can lead to confusion and indecision.
Professional Plus Tips for building a consensus:
Be an effective listener
“7 Reasons Why Decision-Making by Consensus is a Bad Idea (And What to Do Instead)” by Prudy Gourguechon (Forbes; January 25, 2022)
“Why Leaders Shouldn’t Always Seek Consensus” by Michael E. Gerber (Inc.; November 14, 2016)
“When Teams Can’t Decide” by Bob Frish (Harvard Business Review Magazine; November 2008)
"There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” – MLK’s February 1968 “A Proper Sense of Priorities” speech
A conscientious person is someone who wishes to do what is right. He or she especially desires to do dutiful and thorough work. Sometimes we must trust our conscience when making difficult decisions that affect others at work.
Professional Plus tips for making difficult decisions:
Know what your objectives are
Search for alternatives
Weigh your options
Consider future outcomes
If you have employed the tips above and are still having trouble deciding, then you may need to act on your conscience.
“The Three Fundamental Components of Conscientiousness Every Leader Should Follow For Good Communication” by Alexander Guedez (Forbes; July 29, 2021)
“Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end." – MLK’s book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
A conviction is a firmly held belief or opinion. Leading with conviction requires courage. One must be genuine, principled, and steady with their opinion.
Professional Plus Tips
Manage your ego
“Why the Best Leaders Have Conviction” by Travis Bradberry (Forbes; June 28, 2016)
"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope." – The 2002 Coretta Scott-King edited book, “In My Own Words”
Failure and disappointment will occur in the workplace, but one must be resilient. There is an opportunity to learn from every failure.
Professional Plus tips for dealing with failure at work:
Don’t take it personally
Lean on your support network
Identify the opportunities for improvement
Don’t worry about others’ opinions
“10 Healthy Ways to Cope with Failure” by Amy Morin (Very Well Mind; November 29, 2022)
“Why Everyone Must Learn to Deal with Failure in the Workplace” by Peter Done (Forbes; April 22, 2022)
“9 Strategies for How to Deal With Failure (Plus Tips)” by Indeed Editorial Team (Indeed; January 22, 2021)
“How to Bounce Back from a Failure at Work” by Erica Florentine (Bustle; November 12, 2015)
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" – MLK’s 1957 speech in Montgomery, Alabama.
In the workplace, we have a duty to mentor others. Mentors can help their mentees with their professional development and mentoring can also lead to personal fulfillment.
Professional Plus tips for good mentorship:
Build a genuine relationship
Share your journey
Be open and honest
Offer constructive criticism
Share your network
“Improve Workplace Culture with a Strong Mentoring Program” by Naz Beheshti (Forbes: January 23, 2019)
“The 4 Most Important Reasons You Need to Become a Mentor” by Kelli Richards (Inc.; November 21, 2014)
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” – MLK’s 1964 speech in St. Louis
Teamwork leads to better problem-solving and improved productivity. A lack of teamwork in the workplace can be detrimental to team performance.
Professional Plus for better teamwork in the workplace
Encourage frequent communication
Build trust among team members
Clarify team goals and purpose
Clearly define the roles of each team member
Recognize and reward team members
“How Mastering Teamwork Will Make Your Organization Successful” by Alex Kowtun (Forbes; February 13, 2020)
“When Teamwork is Good for Employees – and When It Isn’t” by Chidiebere Ogbonnaya (Harvard Business Review; August 29, 2019)
“8 Reasons Why Teamwork Is Important at Work” by Kimberly Zhang (Lifehack)
8. Adapting to Change
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” – MLK’s 1956 “The Dead of Evil Upon the Seashore” sermon.
Change is important as it leads to innovation and new opportunities. Although change is important, it doesn’t come without its difficulties. We have to be willing to adapt to change because change is inevitable.
Professional Plus tips for handling change:
For the leader……..
Involve team members in the change
For the employee……
Understand the purpose of the change
Lose your ego
“How to Be a Successful Change Leader” by Leading Effectively Staff (Center for Creative Leadership; October 31, 2022)
“Why Change Management is the Most Critical Leadership Skill” by Nicole Braley (Forbes; November 19, 2021)
“11 Tips for Dealing with Change at Work” by Indeed Editorial Team (Indeed; February 22, 2021)
“Organizations Can’t Change If Leaders Can’t Change with Them” by Ron Carucci (Harvard Business Review; October 24, 2016)
9. Work Ethic
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” – Taken from attribution
Employers want workers with strong work ethics. Your work ethic relates to your work performance and can lead to career progression. Skills are important, but your work ethic is crucial to your success.
Professional Plus Tips for developing your work ethic
Set a standard for excellence and hold yourself accountable to meeting it
Identify coworkers with strong work ethics and measure yourself against their work ethic
Practice time management
“Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” by James Clear (October 16, 2018)
“15 Ways to Get A-Level Skills and Work Ethic from Your Whole Team” by Forbes Coaces Council (Forbes; August 2, 2019)
“Educate Entry-Level Workers on Workplace Ethics” by Paul Falcone (SHRM; December 6, 2018)
“How to Build a Reliable Work Ethic” by Scott H. Young (Lifehack)
"Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness." – MLK’s “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” sermon
Altruism in the workplace relates to the selfless concern for helping your colleagues. If you are altruistic at work, you are genuinely interested in the benefit and well-being of your coworkers. A workplace where team member helps each other leads to better collaboration, productivity, and morale.
Professional Plus tips for being more altruistic with your coworkers:
Give advice when appropriate
Offer your time and support
Give praise and recognition
“Selfless Leadership: A Complete Guide to Awakening the Servant Leader Within” by Katrijn Van Oudheusden (January 15, 2022)
“How to Selflessly Lead a Team” by John Hall (Forbes; May 2, 2021)
“Servant Leadership Roadmap: Master the 12 Core Competencies of Management Success with Leadership Qualities and Interpersonal Skills” by Cara H. Bramlett (January 1, 2018)
“The Art of Servant Leadership” by Mark Tarallo (SHRM; May 17, 2018)
11. Being Your Best
“Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.” – MLK’s 1967 speech at Glenville High School
You owe it to yourself and your team members to give maximum effort at work. Giving maximum effort in the workplace will lead to better performance and a more satisfying career.
Professional Plus tips for being your best at work:
Identify what motives you
Break big goals into small tasks
“18 Ways to be the Best You Can Be” by Lucy Bishop (Mind Tools; February 8, 2018)
“10 Ways to Become Better at Your Job Today” by Susan Adams (Forbes; November 11, 2013)
“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink (April 5, 2011)
12. Getting Along
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” – MLK’s “Advice for Living” in 1958
You aren’t going to like every coworker, but it’s important to build working relationships with your fellow team members because it can make your work experience more enjoyable. Communication in the workplace can also lead to better collaboration and trust among team members.
Professional Plus tips for better communication at work:
Speak in person as opposed to via messaging apps
Watch your body language
Understand your team members
Constructive teambuilding exercises
Practice active listening
Learn to accept the personalities of your teammates
“Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People)” by Amy Gallo (September 13, 2022)
“How to Get Along with Your Coworkers” by Alice Boyes (Psychology Today; March 21, 2022)
“How to Deal With a Person That You Dislike but You Have to Work With” by Anam Ahmed (Chron; September 22, 2020)
“12 Ways Successful People Deal with People They Dislike” by Deep Patel (Forbes; October 2, 2017)