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Leadership Simplifed

MLK_robeWarning: this post contains some preaching!

In typical leadership training the facilitator usually goes through an exercise listing of all the attributes of a good leader. After a while, it can looking like a list of all the positive and altruistic traits you could think of! Unfortunately, this can make leadership study complex, because no one can really agree on a concise conceptual definition. So, what we need is simplification. Leadership Simplified.

We would like to submit to you a superset of behaviors that simplifies the leadership construct. An idea that is aligned with teachings in, of all places, the Bible. An idea that was encouraged by that undeniably great leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous sermon “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” (King, 1959)

First given in 1959, Martin summed up what we believe is the simplest essence of effective leadership.

If you could imagine the three dimensions of depth, breadth, and height, please consider: Martin equated the depth of a complete life to the love of one’s self; the breadth of a complete life to the love of others; and the height of a complete life to the love of your God.

You’ve got to have all three of these dimensions to have a complete life. Your life is complete and balanced if all three dimensions are equally developed. And we are proposing that a leader has to have all three of these to be effective, especially in God’s eyes.

The depth of a leader is a measurement of the love he has for himself. It has been said that you must love yourself in order to love others. Jesus said we should love others as ourselves. Yet, how can we love others, unless we love our self? Something gets in the way of loving others when we can’t accept and love ourselves for who we are. Fixing this is “showing up” or “being real”.

Love of yourself can take the form of driving to be the best you can be at what you do, pushing forward toward your personal goals and ambitions. Self-fulfillment. Some people call this mastery, such as becoming a Master of Business Administration. An effective leader must pursue mastery; must love one’s self.

For many, mastery comes from being a continuous learner. Such a person is driven to be the best he can be in what he is doing. If failure is experienced in life, as it often is, pursuit of mastery can help rebuild confidence. Often confidence has to be fixed before someone can love themselves again after failure. What is that worth?

But, as important as mastery is, being a master alone cannot be a complete life. The breadth dimension, a broader concern of others, must be equally developed.

You may remember the parable of the Good Samaritan. The question that the Levite probably asked himself was “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Whereas, the Good Samaritan probably asked the question “What will happen to this man if I don’t stop to help him?” That difference in perspective makes all the difference.

What is servant leadership all about? And transformational leadership? It’s about putting the followers’ needs at the focal point of the leader’s efforts. All the attributes of these modern leadership styles deal with being present for the followers and contributing to their needs.

But, it is actually more than that; it’s their complete personal self-fulfillment that should be the concern of an effective leader. This is agapao love for others; the breadth dimension of a complete life. It’s accountability of this dimension that’ll be the focus at Judgment Day – What did you do for others? An effective leader must love his followers and coworkers.

As most of us know, if a person is equally developed in love of self and love of others, they’re still incomplete unless they also reach up to love their God. The first and greatest commandment is to love your God. Because, God is God. He said “I Am that I Am”. Period. As Martin said, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.” Preach it, brother!

You know, a lot of people compartmentalize their life into personal and professional domains or roles. In the personal domain, they may reach up to God, but in their professional domain they don’t. This is dimensionally unbalanced. Martin calls this a “practical atheism”; a “high blood pressure of creeds, but an anemia of deeds”. We call this a lack of integrity.

A leader’s love of God shows up in her organization’s purpose. If you are a Christian, in order to please your God, your organization’s purpose must be integrated with Christian values. Isn’t this what Jesus would do if he was a CEO today?

Or, what would Martin take up as his torch today? Brad Paisley’s song “Welcome to the Future” (Paisely & DuBois, 2009) was sung at an event in the East Room of the White House, hosted by Michelle Obama, early in their term. The lyrics say:

“I had a friend in school,
Running-back on a football team,
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the home-coming queen.
I thought about him today,
Everybody who’s seen what he’s seen,
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream.
Hey! Hey! Wake up Martin Luther!
Welcome to the future!”

Racial discrimination has not been cured just because we have a black President. But, it’s less of an issue today compared to some other challenges in the world. Martin pointed out in a sermon entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” (King, 1968) that man’s science had compressed time and distance in the world, and had turned it into a neighborhood, but what we needed was a brotherhood. He was concerned that we had not made an ethical commitment to create one.

This is much truer today than it was in his time. The internet, cell phones, greater spread of democracy, and reduction of trade barriers – are all creating a closer knit neighborhood. But, we still don’t have a brotherhood.

And, as Jeffrey Sachs said in his book “The End of Poverty: The Economic Possibilities For Our Time” (Sachs, 2006), partly because of this shrinking neighborhood and expanding technology, we can now end global extreme poverty, malnutrition, and preventable diseases like malaria, polio, tuberculosis, and aids, within our lifetime, with only minor sacrifices from the rich and powerful countries of the world. Unfortunately, the plan proposed by Sachs when he wrote that book in 2005 has not yet been substantially acted upon. So, maybe it could happen by 2020 or 2030?

According to Sachs, we are talking about the difference between the current US contributions of 0.2% of GDP and the needed 0.7% of GDP. This is $54 a year personal giving compared to $189 a year needed, or an additional 37 cents per day for 10 years. Where is the brotherhood in this neighborhood? Think about it!

Today, baby-boomers are becoming the most prominent leaders in the work place. Many of them are at an age where they are asking “why am I doing all this?” “What have I done that is of any significance?” It may be natural for people of this age to question their life like this. But, there are a lot of them, all at once in positions of influence.

Daniel Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us” (Pink, 2011), says that because there are so many people of this age in leadership positions now, US companies are becoming keen on aligning their purpose with socially beneficial goals. Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls these Vanguard Companies (Kanter, 2009), companies that have adopted socially significant missions and using them to motivate employees. Probably caused by the same reason. Should not Christian business leaders be doing that as well?

Julius Caesar’s defining moment was when his men sat on the land of Gaul on the north bank of the Rubicon River and he was deciding whether he would return to Rome alone to face his accusers as a General, or direct his troops to cross the river into Italy to support him and become rebels. We call it his “Rubicon Moment”. This decision in 49 BC to cross the river resulted in a democracy crumbling into a dictatorship for 1,500 years.

As an business leader, perhaps your Rubicon Moment is now – whether you will react to this call-to-action to become equal and expansive in all three dimensions of a complete life. Will you love yourself enough to become a master of you profession? Will you love others at work as yourself, both professionally and personally? And will you love God enough to have integrity in your professional life, integrating God’s will in your organization’s purpose? If you do that, you will be a leader by anyone’s definition.


Duruy, V. (1883). History of Rome vol. V; Suetonius “Life of Julius Caesar” in Davis, William Stearns, Readings in Ancient History (1912).

Kanter, R. (2009). Supercorp: How vanguard companies create innovation, profits, growth and social good. New York, New York: Crown Business.

King, Jr., M.L. (1959). The three dimensions of a complete life. First delivered as a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on April 19, 1959. Original transcription can be viewed at: There are also various MP3 files available on the internet. The sermon evolved into a speech over the course of eight or so years.

King, Jr., M.L. (1968). Remaining awake through a great revolution. Delivered at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC, March 31, 1968. In anthology “A knock at midnight: Inspiration from the great sermons of reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.” (ed. Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran), 1998, New York: Warner Books.

Paisely, B. & DuBois, C. (2009) Welcome to the future. Song on the Brad Paisely album “American Saturday Night”. Details can be obtained from the URL:

Pink, D.H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. USA: Penguin Group.

Sachs, J. (2006). The end of poverty: The economic possibilities for our time. USA: Penguin Group.

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