What We Can Learn From Dr. Martin Luther King About Social And Emotional Intelligence

We usually have the opportunity to see clips of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech on this day.  I love to listen to his courageous and moving words, and reflect on his inspirational and urgent call to end segregation, bigotry and racial injustice, and his plea for tolerance, compassion, and civility.

Martin Luther King delivered his now famous 17-minute speech on a sweltering August day in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to over 200,000 people.
His speech still inspires. His legacy still inspires. His dream still inspires.
His life, his speeches, and his legacy can also teach us a great deal about social and emotional intelligence.
Research has demonstrated again and again that people who are most successful in life and work have a high degree of emotional and social intelligence. Through his words and actions, MLK demonstrated a high degree of social and emotional intelligence (S&EI); he is also widely considered to have been highly successful. He was the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and was twice named “Man of the Year” by TIME magazine. His life and his words successfully launched the civil rights movement that sparked significant change in our nation.
Dr. King exemplifies many dimensions of social and emotional intelligence, including the commonly accepted S&EI competencies of emotional self-awareness, empathy, initiative and bias for action, self-management and impulse control, teamwork and collaboration, and inspirational leadership.
In honor of this great man on this anniversary of his birthday (he would have been 81 today), we’ve pulled several excerpts from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that exemplify his great social and emotional intelligence.
Emotional Awareness:
MLK had a keen awareness of, and ability to articulate, his own and others’ emotions given the struggles they endured.
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”
“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
Empathy:
MLK had an uncanny ability to sense others’ feelings and perspectives, put himself in another’s place, and took an active interest in their concerns.
“We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only”.”
Initiative & Bias for Action:
He was not willing to sit back and wait. He urged people to be proactive and persistent, to act on opportunity.
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
Self-Management and Impulse Control:
Dr. King warned against militancy and violence in the quest for equality. Despite the hatred and vitriol directed at him and his cause, he insisted that civil rights advocates not respond in kind, but rather, encouraged peaceful means to achieve the goals of equality and justice.
He preached and practiced non-violence when hate and violence were imposed on him daily. He understood that reacting to the hatred and violence in kind would not bring his dream to fruition. He advocated
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Teamwork and Collaboration:
He knew the effort would only succeed by working with others toward shared goals. No one person could do it alone. His words served to create a group synergy and mobilization for action in the pursuit of collective goals.
“The new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
Inspirational Leadership:
MLK was able to inspire, guide and mobilize individuals and groups. He articulated a clear, compelling and motivating vision for the future, one which still gives me goose bumps when I hear it to this day.
“When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

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