Monday, March 19, 2012

Life Lessons From Doctor Martin Luther King

The video of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a Dream" speech marked a turning point for the civil rights movement in the USA. It is very difficult for many of us to comprehend the debilitating effects of racism on the scale that it was being practised in many places throughout the USA up until and including the 1960s. It is also very difficult for many of us to comprehend the risks that Martin Luther King Jr was taking in speaking up and speaking out about the inequality that existed at the time. Unfortunately he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his courage - he was assassinated at his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th 1968 (if you ever have the opportunity to visit Memphis, please take the time to visit the Civil Rights Museum which was created at the site of the hotel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated - it is quite a moving experience) but his efforts did not go unrewarded.

While the USA still has a long way to go for "equality to truly reign free", the fact that the country has matured enough that a man of African parentage could become the President is a wonderful sign, something that I am confident Martin Luther King Jr would have celebrated if he were alive today.

The reality for many of us is that we are unlikely to have to lead or face such life threatening changes. We may, however, have to "stand up to be counted" sometimes with the spectre of personal risk hanging over our actions. One of Martin Luther King Jr's many quotes was, "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." Sometimes when we least expect it we may find ourselves thrust into a situation where if we are silent we will protect ourselves and our own patch, while if we were to speak up we may place our 'safety' at some risk.

As an example back in 2004 a young graduate employee of one of Australia's large financial institutions was going about his work. Suddenly he discovered some activities that at first appeared unethical, and then after a little more research appeared downright illegal. He didn't go to work that day looking to discover these breaches within the bank, he was just going about the usual aspects of his job. When he recalled the story to me he said,

"At first I was the only person who knew what I had found. A thought went through my mind that maybe I could just pretend that I hadn't uncovered the illegal behaviour. This was huge and even though I didn't have any legal training I was pretty sure that some people would be going to jail if I opened my mouth. I also suspected that my actions would lead to significant scrutiny of myself. For a brief period I seriously thought about letting it go. I thought that someone else would eventually find the same things that I had discovered and they could be the one to blow the whistle. Even though the person next to me in our open office was not working in the same area as myself, I broadly shared the story without giving away any specific details, just to see what he said. At first he didn't say anything, and as it was the end of the day, he turned off his computer, picked up his bag, grabbed his jacket and walked toward the door. Just before exiting he stopped, turned and said, 'Go home and look into the mirror, then you'll know what to do'. As soon as he had finished saying those words I knew that I had to speak up. I had to be true to myself and do the right thing for the organisation."

This young man eventually spent three days in the witness stand as several of the institutions employees had been charged with various (and serious) offences. The defence lawyers tried to discredit him over those three days and made a number of slanderous comments about him (all of which they withdrew - but nonetheless they were all said publicly). Each of the accused were found guilty and went to prison and the institution used the event as a catalyst to overhaul its culture. As a footnote to this story, the institution concerned has probably performed the best out of all of Australia's financial institutions throughout the global economic downturn and I suspect that their change in culture since 2004 has significantly contributed to their stability over recent times. I don't think that the young man who blew the whistle knew that there would eventually be such a positive ripple effect from his actions. Often this is the case when true courage is shown. The event and experience is initially very hard and painful, while the long term outcome is usually very positive and powerful.

This story highlights that each of us, one day, may have to 'stand up to be counted'. Maybe a fellow employee has been falsely accused of an error when it was our doing; maybe a senior manager is behaving badly within the workplace and their behaviour is not being addressed. You never know, it could be a whole range of issues. The challenge is, what do you think that you would do? Would you be more like the many who remain silent, or would you stand up to be counted? Have any of you 'stood up' before and if so, what happened?

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