The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson

For the past 20 years I’ve often said that the best book on leadership I’ve ever read is The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was edited by Clayborne Carson.

It’s not really an autobiography. It’s a collection of speeches and writings by Martin Luther King, Jr. that essentially go from 1955 until the night before he was shot in 1968.

The reason why I consider it to be the greatest book on leadership that I’ve ever read is because it’s a pure example of how to influence the way other people think. King had no formal power or authority over other people. He was named the president of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) when it was formed in 1955 after Rosa Parks sparked the bus boycott, but that was not a big corporation or a government position. It was an organization that was formed to gain some momentum in what became known as the Civil Rights Movement.

Martin Luther King influenced people through delivering written speeches (including most of his sermons), through extemporaneous speeches (most of his I Have A Dream speech was different than his written text for that day), through letters (and his most famous letter was his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail), though actions (his active involvement in many marches and sit-ins), through strategy (he based his approach of Non-Violent Resistance off of what he learned from studying Mohandas Gandhi), and through examples of personal courage (he kept on going even after his home was bombed and he received multiple threats on his life).

He did not have a lot of money, authority, or big titles in a big corporation. He was not a political figure. He simply influenced people all day long toward thinking differently about race, race relations, and equal opportunity for everyone regardless of the color of their skin.

I read this powerful book in the spring of 1999, and it has stayed in my mind ever since.

It Really Is About the Journey

When you are on a quest to fulfill a purpose or achieve an objective, you take one step after another. Step by step by step. The reward is in the doing, the striving, the learning, the caring, the achieving, the failure, and the frustration. You won’t always win. You won’t always achieve the objective. It’s the sum total of the whole experience that matters.

Not winning doesn’t take away from the experience at all. Not even a little bit.

I love to watch Roger Federer play tennis. He’s my all-time favorite player to watch followed by Bjorn Borg. Those two tried, they worked, they prepared, and they gave everything they could in every match.

Today Roger Federer lost in the 4th Round of the Australian Open to a 20-year-old player from Greece named Stefanos Tsitsipas. He strove, he tried, he worked, he prepared, and he lost.

Doesn’t matter. The beauty is in the journey.

If you feel called to fulfill a particular purpose at home, in your extended family, in your community, in your work, or in the world, go for it. Don’t place your sense of self-worth on the outcome. Just go on the journey. Sometimes it will go well, and sometimes it won’t. Doesn’t matter. Just go. Built into the journey is the enormous value of being on the journey.

The Power of Purposeful Practice

The first chapter of Anders Ericsson’s book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, is called, The Power of Purposeful Practice.

Ericsson notes that there are several key characteristics of purposeful practice:

Has well-defined, specific goals; Is focused; involves feedback; and requires getting out of one’s comfort zone.

This is not just doing something over and over again. What Ericsson found is that EVERY great performer that he studied, and he’s known as the world expert on expertise for a reason, had invested an enormous amount of time in purposeful practice before reaching a level of greatness in his or her activity.

The beauty of Ericsson’s work and why I admire it so greatly is that he has uncovered one of the critically important secrets to performance success. You need to invest your time and energy into purposeful practice.

When Bill Belichick was 8 years old he was breaking down film of football plays for adults. He was receiving feedback from his father and other adults on how he did. Robin Williams practiced in his attic using different voices while he played with toy soldiers. He then eventually got into open mic nights and improv groups where he received immediate feedback from audiences on what worked and what didn’t work. Fred Rogers experimented with puppets and music for over ten years as he worked to perfect his show on child development before he ever went national with Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

What skill do you want to master? Apply the principles of purposeful practice to it, and do so for a very long time.

A Leap in the Dark

In the preface of his book, A Leap in the Dark, John Ferling wrote,

“The title of this book was taken from a line in a newspaper essay written in 1776 by a Pennsylvanian who opposed American independence. To separate from the mother country, he cautioned, was to make ‘a leap in the dark,’ to jump into an uncertain future.

There were those who were ready to take the chance and those who resisted approaching the abyss that would be ushered in by breaking with the past. It was a leap into an unpredictable place to resist British policies, go to war, declare independence, embrace republicanism, ratify the Constitution, enfranchise additional citizens, permit those who had never been trusted with public office to be elected as public officials, and to cast aside the habits of the colonial past.

“Each step was uncertain and chancy. The success of the American Revolution was far from inevitable.”

It all looks so inevitable from where we sit now, but just imagine how risky this massive change must have seemed to people living in the American colonies back then.

What change are you considering right now that you really want to do in your organization or in your career? Does it seem overly risky? Is it a leap in the dark? Imagine going out fifty years into the future and seeing this move as an inevitable success. It’s happened before.

I’m just saying.

Kill The Company

Kill the Company is actually a provocative book title by Lisa Bodell.

Her exercise called, Kill the Company, is very thought-provoking. The idea is for you and your team to come up with ways for a competitor to kill your company. What would the competitor have to do to steal your customers and ruin your business?

This exercise forces you to think of ways to come up with something significantly better than what your organization is doing right now.

And then, of course, the idea is to implement these better ways of doing things. It’s much better for you to kill your old ways of doing things with better ways than for your competition to do that to your business.

Stay True to Yourself

In the past few months I’ve read biographies on Robin Williams, Bill Belichick, and Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood fame.

These three couldn’t be more different from each other, and yet each was remarkably successful in his own way. Why?

I believe the key is that each of them stayed true to himself. None of them tried to be anything other than himself.

Describe yourself. Your values, your standards, your areas of focus, your style, your way of doing things, your passions, your talents, and your character strengths. Write those down. And then as you go about doing whatever you do stay true to yourself. Just try to be a better you. Don’t waste trying to be a better somebody else.

Turn Off, Refresh, Turn On Again

Last year an Apple employee encouraged me to turn off my cell phone every day for at least ten minutes. She said, “Go brush your teeth, use the restroom, maybe take a shower, and then you can turn back on your phone. It will last much longer that way.”

That’s such good advice for how to do significant work.

You can’t work all the time. You need to shut yourself off every day. I recommend several times a day just shut your brain down. Go for a walk. Take a nap. Watch a mindless television show. Allow your brain time to completely ramp down.

Then when you come back do so with much better energy.