Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he had a dream, and he inspired people to make his dream their own. What Ralph Abernathy lent the movement was something else: he knew what it would take to realize that dream, and he showed people how to do it. He gave the dream structure. Dr. King spoke about the philosophical implications of the movement, while Abernathy, Dr. King’s onetime mentor, longtime friend and financial secretary and treasurer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, would help people understand the specific steps they needed to take. “Now,” Abernathy would tell the audience following a rousing address by Dr. King, “let me tell you what that means for tomorrow morning.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader, but he didn’t change America alone. Though Dr. King inspired the movement, to actually move people requires organizing. As is the case with almost all great leaders, there were others around Dr. King who knew better how to do that. For every great leader, for every why-type, there is an inspired how-type or group of how-types who take the intangible cause and build the infrastructure that can give it life. That infrastructure is what actually makes any measurable change or success possible.
The leader sits at the top of the cone—at the start, the point of why—while the how-types sit below and are responsible for actually making things happen. The leader imagines the destination and the how-types find the route to get there. A destination without a route leads to meandering and inefficiency, something a great many why-types will experience without the help of others to ground them. A route without a destination, however, may be efficient, but to what end?
It is all fine and good to know how to drive, but it is more fulfilling when you have a place to go. For Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy was one of those he inspired and who knew how to make the cause actionable and tangible. “Dr. King’s job was to interpret the ideology and theology of non-violence,” said Abernathy. “My job was more simple and down-to-earth. I would tell (people), ‘Don’t ride those buses.’”
In every case of a great charismatic leader, who ever achieved anything of significance, there was always a person or small group lurking in the shadows who knew how to take the vision and make it a reality. Dr. King had a dream. But no matter how inspiring a dream may be, a dream that cannot come to life stays a dream! Dr. King dreamed of many of the same things as countless as other African Americans—who grew up in the pre-civil rights South. He spoke of many of the same themes. He felt the same outrage perpetrated by an unjust system. But it was King’s unflappable optimism and his words that inspired a population.
Dr. King didn’t change America by himself. He wasn’t a legislator, for example, but legislation was created to give all people in the United States equal rights regardless of skin color. It wasn’t Dr. King who changed America; it was the movement of millions of others whom he inspired that changed the course of history. But how do you organize millions of people? Forget millions, how do you organize hundreds or tens of people? The vision and charisma of the leader are enough to attract the innovators and the early adopters. Trusting their guts and their intuition, these people will make the greatest sacrifices to help see the vision become a reality. With each success, with every tangible demonstration that the vision can in fact become reality, the more practical-minded majority starts to take interest. What was previously just a dream soon becomes a provable and tangible reality. And when that happens, a tipping point can be reached and then things really get moving.
In the last twenty-five years, I have met with many dreamers-who do not know how to realize their dreams. They wrongly think all there is to become successful is to just have dreams. They tell everyone that they have dreams, but over the years, they have remained dreamers. The first thing every dreamer needs to understand is that dreams alone are not enough. You need the right company of people to realize a dream. One person is not enough to realize a dream. You need your own company of people—those who have what you lack—those who see eye to eye with you—those who believe in your dream.
Apart from having your own company of skillful people, you also need to know the steps you’d need to take for the dream to come to pass. Do you need to change your environment for the dream to come to pass? Do you need to go back to school for it to come to pass? Do you need to build a functional library for it to come to pass? Do you need to acquire a new mentor for it to come to pass? Do you need to acquire a new skill for it to come to pass? Realizing a dream requires a lot. This is one of the reasons many dreams die as mere dreams.
For a dream of yours to come to pass, it begins with you, but it must not end with you. The reason many dreams do not come to pass is because those who give birth to them do not let those who believe in those dreams own and run with them. One person can birth a dream, but one person is too small to realize it. To realize your own dream, you’d need to allow those who believe in your dream own it. Let them run with it. They know what you do not know. They know who you do not know. Their corporate strength is more than your own singular strength. For your own dream to move from the ‘Valley of Hebron’ to the place of fulfillment, let those who see eye to eye with you run with it. This is non-negotiable.
Lastly, I see your dreams come to pass in 2021, on the condition that you would put into practice what I have been able to pass on to you in this piece. See you where those who are living their dreams are found.
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