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The Words that Changed America

Originally published August 2012.

It's wrong to say that a leader's words don't matter. Words have power. In 1963, a young civil rights leader forever changed America with his speech about his dream. Click To Tweet

I was just a child that day. As I watched the large sea of people gathering in the public square, I was unaware of the magnitude of the event that was occurring.  I did not know that I was watching history in the making. I knew little about the 34 year old idealistic and eloquent man who spoke that day. His words were a visionary dream of a better future. They were the words that changed America and forever affected me. On that day, Dr. Martin Luther King told America that he had a dream and he invited every one who would listen to him to help him realize that dream.

The anniversary of Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington in 1963 came and passed. It was largely lost in the news cycle but it was not lost on me. As I remembered his speech and its impact on America, it reminded me of how much words matter–especially for leaders.

Leaders cannot lead others if they are unable to paint a clear picture of a desirable future that is better than the present state. It is the communication of a shared vision of a desirable future that allows a man or woman to lead others. The young Dr. King understood the importance of effective leadership communication. He effectively addressed the difficult topic of race relations by explaining the past and present and sharing a vision of a desirable future.  The following excerpts are some of his words that changed America:

Understanding the Past

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand 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 captivity.

Explaining the Present

 But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still 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 languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

Sharing a Desirable Future

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. . . .

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today. . . .

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

As a leader, Dr. King challenged the nation. While we still strive to fully realize his dream, his words did greatly change us.  We are not the same country that we were in 1963.

Few people will have the impact of Dr. King to inspire such significant change. Leadership still matters though wherever it occurs.

Wherever you lead,  how would you evaluate your own leadership impact?

Do your words give your team clarity and hope?

Do your words inspire others to follow your lead?

Does your team see your vision of the future as something they want to own with you?

Words do matter and this is especially true for leaders!

(You can view the full text of Dr. King’s speech here.)


Words have power and they matter. This is especially true for leaders. Click To Tweet
Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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