Converging Worlds

martin Luther: everyone can be great

In my day job, as one of the Founding Directors of Fiona MacNeill Associates (FMA), I am afforded fantastic opportunities to support and enable other people to learn. This is my lifeblood; it connects me to my love of people, to my creativity and my desire to make a sustainable difference.

In this role, I am continually striving to discover/re-discover creative ways to enable people, teams and organisations to think about learning, leadership and change.

I am a habitual learner and have been fortunate to engage in a variety of development experiences where I have been challenged and inspired by the knowledge and skills of others. This is my passion; it connects me to new people, new ideas, new thinking and my desire to continually learn and improve.

It is perhaps not surprising that I have ended up where I have!

Recent changes at FMA have created space for me to do something different on a Friday. Given this space, I decided to enrol on a short course at Glasgow University: Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement. It was a 10-week learning experience with a group of nine fellow learners aged 18-83!

I arrived expecting to learn about the historical context, the political landscape and the impact of the Civil Rights movement. I had not expected in any explicit way that the learning would have a real impact on my thinking around leadership and change in the here and now. This has been particularly relevant in the context of my thinking around the work FMA facilitate in public sector organisations.

This led me to formulate the question:

What can we as facilitators learn about leadership, activism and change from Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement?

Clearly this could be a PhD in its own right! Therefore, it feels important to set the expectation:

  • This is a piece of reflective writing, informed by current experiences as a facilitator and conversational practitioner in complex public sector systems
  • This is a personal inquiry which will conclude with a series of questions, which could be used as a basis for generative conversations within these complex systems
  • This is my perspective and is informed by learning and reading, and equally will hold assumptions around leadership and activism formed over 30 years of practising in this field


The context of FMA’s work in leadership development

Our theoretical context for leadership development is based on Systems Thinking. Everything we do is designed to support leaders to navigate the complexity of organisational life; seeing themselves, the system and the unseen consequences of their action and inaction.

Organisations only exist because of people and are a human phenomenon. Organisations contain all aspects of human life and therefore, there is confusion, misunderstanding, enlightenment, common cause, conflict and harmony.

Where there are people there will be behaviour driven by logic, desire, emotion, imagination, tiredness, righteousness, habit, mischief, good intentions and misjudgement.  Human beings are, on the whole, essentially messy.

Organisations are, therefore, messy and do not run on orderly lines, despite a plethora of systems and processes that may assume how people will act.

Viewing organisations as living human systems leads us to focus on particular features of organisational life.  The interactions we have with others, to this end, are influenced by our beliefs about how to achieve growth and renewal of this living entity – of how to work with all that is human within the organisation and of how to work with the interconnectedness of the organisation system.

Amidst this complexity we believe in the power of appreciation, conversation and inquiry to produce change – in contrast to a belief in the power of criticism, autocracy and judgement.  We appreciate that the act of asking a question or inquiring into an aspect of life is not consequence free.

First, there is the recognition that to inquire is not a precursor to doing something – it is doing something.  Secondly, that since we are likely to produce more of what we ask about, we should take care of selecting that into which we choose to inquire, as it will change our perception, experience and our leadership impact.

Most people want action and to create a future they believe in. This means that the nature of the questions we ask either keeps the existing system in place or brings an alternative future into the room.

In the autocratic system it is taken as understood that talk happens before change. Talking is the process by which you plan the changes you are going to make, or the process by which you gather data.

There is little thought given to the concept that talk itself might change anything. From a conversation based perspective, how we talk about the world affects how we see, experience, make sense of and understand the world, and hence the way we act in the world.  In this way, both continuity and change are inherently contained and expressed in patterns of conversation.

It’s not so much that we talk about the world as we see it, it’s more that we see the world as we talk about it. When we change the patterns of talk or conversation, we change our world.

For sustainable change, as opposed to an emergency reaction to an unexpected crisis or threat, the energy that is associated with a positive emotional state is much more appropriate, being both durable and renewable. Morale makes all the difference to people’s ability to make the most of what the world offers them.

Excerpt from Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Alabama, 16 April 1963


Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement

After the American Civil War (1861-1865), black people were relegated to the South, as part of a process called reconstruction. The 13th amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States, passed the Senate on April 8, 1864, and the House on January 31, 1865. Little changed and segregation created economic and political enslavement for black people.

As well as segregation, black people suffered physical abuse, including lynching and psychological abuse via State Legislature, which denied black people voting rights through a variety of highly questionable practices. Martin Luther King Jr grew up in Atlanta Georgia and benefitted from a secular and religious education.

He became a pastor in 1954 and in 1955 became actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement. From 1955 to his assassination in 1968, he campaigned, lobbied governments and presidents, made inspirational speeches, wrote considered diaries and articles, and put his life and the life of his family on the line for what he believed in. His goal was racial equality, his belief in the power of non-violence and his behaviour a mirror of that.

It took more than 100 years after the end of the Civil War before segregation ended, but discrimination continues.

Parallels and Lessons

My experience on the programme enabled me to identify many parallels between King’s leadership and what is expected of leaders in complex systems today. In particular, some of the areas that provide the biggest challenges to leaders: working aligned to personal integrity, using inquiry and dealing with emergence, and understanding the power of collective responsibility.

Some of the lessons are not new. Specifically, the lesson around collective responsibility for change and trusting the front-line to mobilise and act remains a challenge in the systems that we work in where the pressures of target, to get it right first time and governance get in the way of creativity, risk and real empowerment.


Martin Luther King Jr was absolutely adamant that the way to an equal society was through non-violence. This set him at odds with some people within his own organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Within the SCLC there were many contested visions; compromise represented the reality of a complex environment with differing agendas and ways of doing things.

King stayed true to his belief to such an extent that he removed firearms from his own house, even though he was continually being threatened, and his home was bombed in 1956. On the wider stage he was directly at odds with Malcolm X (although they later became more aligned around their beliefs about Human Rights), who saw non-violence as the slave mentality; turning the other cheek, and with the Black Panthers who preached revolutionary war.


Lesson: Staying true to beliefs and integrity in highly complex and volatile systems


What are the resulting questions for our work?

  • How do we, as leadership facilitators, support leaders to stay true to their integrity in complex systems that often feel unsafe?
  • How do you stay true to your integrity when the system feels unsafe?
  • If you stood tall and connected to your integrity, what would you do next….and then what?
  • How has your integrity shaped you as a person and as a leader?
  • How do you behave when your integrity is challenged?


Inquiry and dealing with emergence

The initial question for Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement was about the end of segregation and the quest for equality. It was a race question. The Civil Rights Bill was passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill in 1965, but this did not change things enough and both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X began to shift their focus to Human Rights.

Questions emerged about education, housing, poverty and opportunity. This galvanised a wider group who were segregated and discriminated against because they were poor, not because they were black.

As early as 1962, Michael Harrington published his seminal work on poverty called The Other America, and by the time of the Poor People’s Campaign and the March on Washington in August 1968 only 47% of those who marched were black.

One interesting example of emergence is that Martin Luther King Jr had not planned the ‘I had a dream’ speech. He had used the phrase previously in many speeches but was encouraged by a colleague to use the phrase just as he took the podium.


Lesson: The question you start with may not be the question you finish with


What are the resulting questions for our work?

  • How do we, as leadership facilitators, keep an open mind and open heart to the changing and emerging worlds of the people that we work with?
  • What is the work, what is the campaign and where can you start?
  • What are your best/least understood aspects of the situation?
  • If your old way of life/being is threatened by the change ….what is the conversation you need to have/ what will you do next?


Collective responsibility

Martin Luther King Jr was first and foremost a preacher. His speeches are legendary and undoubtedly, he was a charismatic leader in the true sense of the phrase. He understood the wider context of his leadership and his own limitations.

As a scholar, King was able to write well and engage with white American liberals as well as white people who did not support his cause. He was a figurehead for the Movement, but surrounded himself with people that he could trust. King absolutely recognised that change would come not just from the influence of leaders such as himself, but also from grassroots activists.

These individuals and groups, who without direction, instruction or central leadership, created groups that were willing to stand up to segregation and inequality. This became part of the challenge for the leadership: to build community and create the capacity for further activism through education and engagement.


Lesson: People can lead themselves; creating a climate of empowerment v indifference


What are the resulting questions for our work?

  • How do we, as leadership facilitators, encourage investment in teams and individuals that work at the front-line of services as well as the traditional investment in hierarchical leaders?
  • What can we learn from people’s lived experience?
  • How do you show your trust for people at the front-line in terms of the decisions and actions they take?
  • What is the injustice perceived/felt by others?
  • How can you, as a leader, create the safe spaces for people to speak?


In conclusion

There are lessons to be learned and inspiration to be had, in terms of leadership and integrity, courage, education, opportunity and hearing all of the voices.

For me, the biggest learning is around activism and the support of the grassroots movement to mobilise communities in acts of real change. Martin Luther King Jr dreamt out loud and encouraged others to do the same.

He believed in collaborative capacity and uniting strengths. His leadership inspired others to stand-up, step-up and speak-up, and this remains central to the role of leaders today.

Historically, our focus has been on developing hierarchical leaders, believing that if we got that right then the rest would follow. There is some significant body of evidence to support this thinking; however, more and more in the increasing complexity of organisations I see that it is not one thing or the other, but the opportunity to develop change-makers at all levels that is important, as well as continuing to develop senior leaders.

This approach creates the space, the inquiry and the conversations to:

  • Develop and nurture relationships and energy that already exists within organisations and their communities
  • Cultivate and mobilise the assets of the workplace and their communities linked to deeper purpose
  • Make it easy to engage others in positive, generative conversation about the future
  • Co-operate and collaborate using conversation and creativity to eliminate silos and challenge egos that get in the way of progress
  • Meet people where they are and build resilience and connectedness
  • Change the balance of power so that front-line workers and communities are the change-makers and supported by senior teams, rather than driven by their agenda
  • Use practical application of theoretical constructs to deliver change quickly
  • Make it easy to test new ideas, fail fast, learn quick and enable ownership of change
  • Co-create and produce shared outcome measures


This is the focus of my attention as I continue to prototype and test programmes for change-maker individuals and teams who are at the front-line of delivering services in complex and volatile environments, with a nod of reverence to the brave and tenacious men and women of the Civil Rights Movement for inspiration.


My sincere thanks to Dr. Robert Hamilton from the University of Glasgow for the inspirational learning.

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