Celebrating the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

As MLK Day approaches, North Highland leaders reflect on the powerful lessons inspired by the works of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Participating in the following insightful Q&A, we have (in order of appearance):

  • Alex Bombeck, Chief Executive Officer
  • Barbara Ray, Managing Director and President of Client Services
  • Lia Keel, Managing Director
  • Sucheta Misra, Associate Vice President of I&D and Social Impact Leader
  • Matthew Klein, Managing Director and Chief Marketing Officer

What do you admire most about Dr. King’s legacy?

Alex Bombeck: When I think about the full magnitude of Dr. King's legacy, I’m quickly struck by the extent to which it surfaces throughout not only the fabric of societal and civil rights justice here in the US, but in humanitarian rights justice across our entire planet.

My admiration can be summed up in three words that Dr. King regularly used to describe how he approached driving change: progression, discomfort, and nonviolence. He knew that change is about progress, not a destination. He encouraged people to seek discomfort; comfort in the current state stops progress. And, critically, conflict would always be part of progression but did not require violence. Dr. King’s legacy reminds us all of the core tenets we should adhere to, if we know change is for the better.  

Dr. King was a leader in two of the most profound social movements in the US: anti-war and civil rights/human rights. What lessons can we take from the study of social movements that transfer to our work in igniting change and transformation within organizations?

Barbara Ray: Dr. King’s leadership and accomplishments provide great lessons that can be applied to the change and transformation work within our client organizations. Dr. King was a consensus builder, and his leadership was one of inclusion. He wasn’t necessarily ‘in charge’, but the change that resulted from his leadership was based upon finding principles that resonated with multiple factions involved in the social movements of the day.

The work we do is premised on similar penetration in an organization undergoing a transformation.  We need to recognize the same dynamics are at play. Where can we ensure we’re being inclusive and building consensus to enable the organization to achieve the transformation’s objectives? Dr. King’s legacy is a terrific reminder that consensus building and inclusion can accelerate the transformation being sought.

How does North Highland recognize MLK Day in a way that honors Dr. King’s legacy?

Lia Keel: In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act. This made Martin Luther King Day a day of service to others. North Highland began honoring that tradition last year by making Martin Luther King Day our ‘Day of Giving Back’. On this day, each of our U.S. offices volunteers with a local non-profit in their community to further our economic empowerment philanthropic mission. Unfortunately, we had to postpone this year’s event due to COVID but we still plan to honor MLK Day through an event where our leaders discuss Dr. King’s work and its importance to us at North Highland.

Today, we see Dr. King as a hero. In his lifetime, he was disparaged and his views were unpopular. What can we learn from this disparity? What lens can we use to understand ‘disruptive’ or ‘disobedient’ actions in our era?

Sucheta Misra: It’s important, first, to acknowledge why Dr. King was targeted and disparaged. For a large part of his activism, he was unpopular with the white demographic in the U.S. for igniting changes in the civil rights movement. Towards the end of his life, he was unpopular with others because of his commitment to nonviolent impact. We see similar sentiments reflected in every era and echoed today. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is divided internally and scrutinized externally even though it has provided trailblazing leadership in the modern civil rights struggle.

What we can learn from this disparity is that it’s harmful to see things at surface-level and think in absolutes when we observe contemporary social activism. Was Dr. King a powerful leader that created change? Yes. Were every one of his ideas spot on? Probably not. However, he had great intentions. In observing those that presently challenge the status quo, the easy path is to sit on the couch and label them as disruptive or disobedient. It is more interesting as a society, though, to understand the underlying motivation behind those challenges, light a fire, and start contributing to solving the needs of others in multiple ways, rather than judging or vilifying.  

Before we wrap up, how about a little food for thought? What should businesses ask themselves about Dr. King’s work?

Matthew Klein: Food for thought: Do what’s right, even if it’s not the popular thing to do. Business leaders should challenge themselves and their people to always operate in this manner. And that’s the question businesses must ask themselves about Dr. King’s work: Are we doing what’s right? Are we keeping people at the center of every decision? How are we ensuring there are no injustices in any area of our business practice? And if so, how are we effectively addressing the issues?

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