“Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin,” singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to him, “tell ‘em about the dream!” Imagine the inner reaction of the speaker, halfway through his script, a quarter of a million people standing in the sun to see and hear him, millions more listening on the radio and watching him on TV—the leadership speech of a lifetime—and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is interrupted, loudly, by someone sharing the speakers’ platform at the Lincoln Memorial.
Mahalia Jackson was his friend. She had just sung a stirring spiritual. She had set the mood, paved the way for her friend’s big speech. Now, in the middle of his oration, why would she take the chance of jarring him?
On a previous occasion, Jackson had heard King give a talk that rose on a riff about a vision, a cause, a hope, “a dream.” Whether she self-satisfyingly wanted to hear it again or, as I imagine, she wanted the leader she followed to connect with this audience of a lifetime, Jackson provided impromptu communications counsel.
She couldn’t tap him on the shoulder. She couldn’t write a note and slip it to him. The crowd was there and he was there and she knew he knew how to put it to potential followers…and, at least in her view, her experience in communicating and connecting, the chief just wasn’t making it. So she said it loudly: “Tell ‘em about the dream!”
Now, we have the leader. Startled, for sure. Acutely aware of the place, the time, the content and the intent of his written remarks…
But here is where leadership communications and the communicating leader are tested.
Authentic leaders adjust to reality. They accept and if necessary and appropriate explain to others the exact, real state of things, the contexts that surround their opportunity. And they provide a hopeful outlook. They picture the best achievable outcome.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King that day, 50 years ago, stirred that crowd and underscored the power of telling the truth and reaffirming the hope.
We don’t know the rest of the prepared remarks—was it historical, histrionic, angry, maybe perfectly good rhetoric?—but we do know it could not have inspired as did the words that followed. With no more than a few seconds of internalizing his friend Mahalia Jackson’s surprising prompt, this remarkable leader pushed aside the script and launched the dream, which connected then, and continues to connect.
And so, chief counselor to chief communicators, how do you help your leader to connect when the text is out of context? Do you hand him a note or a bottle of water? Do you shout it out? I know. It depends. Contexts constantly change, don’t they?
When I was in elementary school in Oakland, California, one of my fondest memories was that every mo…
Here's why The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is loved, remembered and celebrated: He was tremendou…
It’s heartbreaking that more than 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and …