January 15, 2018
Community Connections

Incorporating MLK’s tenets in the workplace

Ted Carroll

As a community organizer by training, I frequently refer to Martin Luther King Jr. for lessons and inspiration. The vision he so eloquently articulated in 1983 appealed to such a large swath of Americans that we created a national holiday in his honor. This vision compels us to ask ourselves how we can tap into King's profound truths and lofty ideals in our communities and in our businesses today.

There are many ways in which workplace leaders have adapted King's tenets. In doing so, many have built successful businesses while contributing to healthier communities. One of the most important ways in which this happens, of course, is in deciding whom to employ.

My liberal friends may scoff at this idea, but I think conservatives are right when they say that the best social service program is a job. And by making affirmative efforts to reach out to women, minorities, veterans and members of the LGBTQ community, employers have not only helped traditionally marginalized groups, they have helped their businesses. By diversifying their workplaces, they have fostered creativity and innovation while also gaining access to new markets.

Beyond hiring people who need jobs, however, the best companies work hard to respect and value those they hire and inspire them to reach for something noble. Kim Cameron, professor at the School of Business at the University of Michigan calls these companies "virtuous organizations." His research indicates that there is a positive relationship between high-performing and profitable organizations and the presence of such qualities as "compassion, integrity, trust and optimism" in their leaders.

Leaders are key to building this kind of culture, and Robert Greenleaf, a retired AT&T executive, coined the term, "servant leader" in his 1970 essay. Greenleaf describes this kind of leader as one who chooses to lead from a desire to serve first. Such leaders ask themselves if those they serve grow as persons. "Do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"

These are questions King himself might have asked business leaders. Over the last 20 years, I've had the occasion to work with the Greenleaf Center of Servant Leadership and have been pleased to learn how many major corporate executives have adopted Greenleaf's philosophy in their business operations.

Local business leaders may not often use the phrase "servant leader" and they might be too humble to describe their workplaces as "virtuous," but I have seen enough examples of both in this region to feel hopeful that new business norms may be evolving.

In my view, Kate Emery, founder, president and CEO of Walker Systems, is a servant leader who runs a virtuous organization in which the profits get shared equally among shareholders, employees and the community. Emery cares about her employees and her community as much as any business leader I know. And her technology company is one of the largest and most successful in the region. I don't think that's a coincidence.

Nearly 30 years ago, Worth Loomis envisioned the role Leadership Greater Hartford (LGH) could play in the region. This highly respected business and community leader encouraged me and others to imagine how LGH "could lower the barriers of race, economics, education, age and gender in ways that would lead all who live and work in the region to believe that they live in a just and caring community." This is a vision that compels our work in the community even today.

Imagine if we could all find ways to embrace this vision in our workplaces so that they, too, are places where barriers are lowered and where employees feel they work for a just and caring employer.

If we did, each of us, regardless of our professions, could help bring about the world that King, Loomis and other visionaries have inspired us to build. I believe that our community would thrive, and it would probably be very good for business, too.

Ted Carroll is the president of Leadership Greater Hartford.

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