What We Can Learn About Leadership and Addressing Dissent Today From MLK Jr.

Jessica Carpenter

In 2022, we are living through one of the most polarizing times in modern American history. With the COVID-19 pandemic at the center of many debates, followed by topics of education, voting, climate change, and human rights, getting the public anywhere close to agreeing on something seems impossible. This division is further reflected on a community level through our relationships, classrooms and workplaces. 

Today, the only guidance for how to address these differences is what we see displayed by our leaders. The outline, so far, has been villainization, blaming, and divisive rhetoric, which has only exacerbated the problem. 

Born in a century characterized by influential figures, voices and changemakers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could be called one of the greatest leaders in American history. His contributions to American society emboldened millions in the call for equality and welcomed long overdue societal change that we are still perfecting today. 

Despite many odds, MLK Jr. led one of the most successful movements for racial justice in American history. He did this through promotion of empathy, prospect and constructive engagement. Dr. King’s wave of peaceful protests and powerful words during the Civil Rights Movement drafted an outline for future leaders, offering examples for rallying people behind shared values and creating unity. Although his teachings remain static in history, we find that they are still applicable today. 

Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

In the face of current dissent, violence and exclusion have once again become the default response. In return, the public has been led to believe that it is through these means we must choose which conversations, which political party, which issues and solutions prevail. As long as the current approach remains unchallenged, what solutions are found in its wake will be tarnished by a foundation of baleful motivations. Remedying this starts with constructive engagement. 

Change today should come from constructive disagreement over division, and empathy over exclusion. MLK Jr. was battling centuries of racism and intolerance when he led the March on Washington. But, without his dedication to engaging those who disagreed with him, the civil rights movement wouldn’t have been as successful as it was. And it is through similar means that we will achieve a sound foundation to create change.

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

A common misconception for addressing disagreements today is to change minds and force agreement. We see this in Congress when bipartisan consensus is replaced with partisan majorities after a common solution hasn’t been found. What our current leaders should understand is that motivating those around us doesn’t start with everyone being in full agreement, but instead with having a shared goal. 

Many debates today are rung through partisan divides, and result in inaction from both sides because we believe we’re working toward different goals. In fact, the reality is much different when you actually sit down for a conversation. According to The Atlantic, Americans aren’t as extreme as they believe each other to be, and may even be able to agree on a number of the same problems. Instead of forcing consensus, we should take this opportunity of nuance to mold a better path to address disagreement.

We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”

Now one of his most recited quotes, this message of working together is one of the most unfathomable. Between President Joe Biden’s speeches shunning Republican lawmakers on voting reform, and turning vaccinated against unvaccinated on COVID-19, to cheers of “Let’s Go Brandon” echoed by lawmakers and public figures, to political commentators using polarizing rhetoric to stir audiences every night, animosity toward those who think differently than us has reached a new high.

Over the last few years, we have forgotten that America was built on diversity of opinion and background. It was once the backbone of our greatest advancements in technology, social and economic justice, and democracy. MLK Jr. recognized this sentiment, and utilized it at the core of his movement. As influential figures in this new age of polarization, our leaders should be following that example, and working to bring people back together.

Let’s build bridges, not walls.

The final lesson that we can borrow from history is that of building bridges. Many organizations today are working to recreate these bridges through having constructive dialogue in their communities. BridgeUSA is one of these organizations leading positive change on college campuses around the nation. Through their work, thousands of students have had discussions across the aisle and learned to utilize empathy and constructive engagement to address dissent and become better leaders on campus.

Until this same initiative is echoed by our political leaders, we will continue to fall behind in addressing pressing issues impacting our country. Incorporating the intent to work across the aisle and incorporate ideas from different perspectives ultimately creates better solutions all around and is more reflective of what our country needs. Seldom are these solutions found through obstructing those in opposition. 

The Civil Rights Movement challenged the public to reflect on their views and break barriers that kept society divided. MLK Jr. welcomed opposition in his endeavors, and strived for improvement through that. His practices of empathy, prospect and constructive engagement inspired change on a massive front, and created a movement carried by individuals who shared these ideals and were driven by their shared goal for a better future. These teachings may lend a hand in shaping the next steps for our country today, and can serve as a guide for leadership and disagreement in our time of division.

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