Marshall Alston still remembers the fight – or discussion – between hime and his wife in 2006 – do they go see X-Men: The Last Stand or The Devil Wears Prada? Suffice it to say, they saw The Devil Wears Prada. The irony is Marshall Alston enjoyed the movie thoroughly and left the theater excited because of all the underlying messages about employee engagement in a work environment. In fact, he built an entire presentation on the subject based on the movie. That’s the first time Marshall Alston realized that Human Resources wasn’t just his job – it’s the way he views the world!
And so the saga continues, but this time with the movie Selma, a film that stirs up emotions and delivers a powerful message about how people can come together to change the world. Yet, this portrayal of an American hero is also a great lesson in leadership. Below, Marshall Alston provides some context and examples:
The film spans a six-month period of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life in 1965, during the time he led three historic marches in Selma, Alabama. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination and segregation still ran rampant in many areas of the country, making it difficult for many blacks to register to vote and disenfranchising millions. This challenge provided a ripe opportunity for a Baptist minister, activist, and humanitarian to demonstrate exceptional leadership abilities.
The movie takes place in a relatively late stage of the civil rights movement and well into King’s activist celebrity. King had been a reluctant hero. Ten years prior, he took leadership of the landmark Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1965 only after a fellow minister convinced him to hold the first meeting at his own church. Many regard the success of this boycott to have essentially launched the civil rights movement — and King’s national career. The man grew into a moment.
Marshall Alston – Leadership Lesson: How many times do we have leaders that are not sure that they can be successful in that next role – that stretch assignment?
The movie zeroes in on a small chapter of King’s activism, giving us an intimate look at his human side. While Selma still portrays King as courageous, brilliant, and strategic, the movie also conveys that he is obviously flawed. King was often the target of threats to expose his shortcomings, something that he feared would not only risk his reputation as a religious leader, husband, and father, but also mar the excellent, yet delicate progress the civil rights movement had already made.
Marshall Alston – Leadership Lesson: Do we sometimes focus so much on a leader’s shortcomings that we miss the greater impact they can have on the organization?
To mitigate his self-doubt, King surrounded himself with a strong supporting cast. Each person gave King exactly what he needed in pivotal moments. King confided in his colleagues and his wife as he faced his own doubts, confronted painful tradeoffs, and struggled with the sacrifices of his followers on the front lines. Through them, he found strength to persevere, but only after seriously questioning and critiquing the viability of his next move.
Marshall Alston – Leadership Lesson: Do we do enough organizationally to help leaders surround themselves with a strong supporting cast?
When King led the second march in Selma, he experienced another moment of self-doubt. As the march crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the protesters met a group of state police. With King leading a chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” the marchers kneeled, prayed, and turned around without confrontation. MLK sensed that if he continued to process, a repeat of the first March (now known as Bloody Sunday) was imminent. But it was much more than a last minute call. A judge sympathetic to King’s cause was working to secure protection for the marchers, and asked King not to march until he could do so. King wanted to make a public statement, but did not want to abuse the judge’s goodwill by disobeying his order. Very few in his inner circle knew this (and few would have had faith in a local judge’s goodwill), so dozens of would-be marchers felt disappointed, confused, and betrayed by their leader.
Marshall Alston – Leadership Lesson: How often do leaders step back to question course of action and revise the plan in light of changing conditions?
The film also shows King constantly learning, particularly from failures and setbacks. He realized he could not overcome deep-seated feelings about segregation without exposing the atrocities to a wider audience and knew that national news coverage would make the issue visible to many more Americans. King turned to local civil rights activists for advice, understanding that the temperament of local law enforcement dramatically impacted his ability to succeed. In essence, he needed a hothead who would respond with violence to the protestors. By exposing this violence on national TV, King used the media to garner additional support.
King demonstrated two important leadership characteristics. First, he articulated the circumstances in which he could be successful. Second, he deferred to the judgment of the people on the ground – people he needed to influence if he was to be successful in Selma.
Despite the fact that King was surrounded by so many stalwart civil rights leaders, no one could pick up the baton after his death. This was a sobering reminder that we all have a role to play in whatever we endeavor to accomplish. Everyone doesn’t get to deliver the “I Have a Dream Speech.” But, success is only achieved if people perform their assigned roles well, supporting other team members as needed through the challenging times.
This movie really made Marshall Alston think. He hopes you take the time to watch Selma…and feel free to disagree… many movie critics already have!!!
For more thoughts on leadership and HR, follow Marshall Alston on Twitter: https://twitter.com/marshallalston_.