He heard the news while boarding the plane. Martin Luther King had just been shot.
It was April 4th, 1968.
Bobby Kennedy was campaigning for his party’s presidential ticket. He was on his way to Indianapolis to finish off another day on the campaign trail.
When the plane landed, the death of Dr. King was confirmed.
As a result, city officials and members of his team strongly advised Kennedy against appearing in front of a crowd. The chief of police had warned that if a riot broke out, they wouldn’t be able to provide adequate protection.
Kennedy went ahead anyway. He canceled the stop at his headquarters to go directly to the rally site. It was in the heart of the African-American ghetto, and the news was not yet public.
Both his press secretary and his speechwriter drafted some notes for him to use, but he had written down his own words on the plane ride there, and those were the words he spoke.
He made the disheartening announcement while standing on the back of a flatbed truck.1
The crowd erupted into screams of horror, disbelief, and hopelessness.
When they stopped, he spoke of what was likely to come: violence and bloodshed, a greater divide between the races, and he contrasted that with Dr. King’s message.
He acknowledged the right of the African-American community to feel bitter and broken, and for the first time, he spoke publicly of his own brother’s assassination almost five years earlier.
As he walked away, he left the crowd with a choice of the kind of nation they wanted to be.
That night, riots erupted in more than a 100 cities. Indianapolis wasn’t one of them.
The Definition of Leadership
To accomplish a collective goal, we divide up responsibility. And the way that this responsibility is often assigned is through different positions. That’s how most of our organizations work.
When we do this, we automatically lump certain professions under the leadership category. If they have responsibility for a group of people or they direct a cause, we call them leaders.
Politicians, business executives, and team captains are all some prominent examples. They wield a position of influence, and we give them a seemingly appropriate label.
This isn’t entirely accurate. Those in leadership positions aren’t always leaders. It takes more than having someone call you a leader to be a leader. Leadership isn’t what you do for a living, but it’s who you are, and who you are is defined by your actions, not just titles and perception.
Kennedy compromising his safety to deliver the news of Dr. King’s assassination was an act of leadership. Had he listened to his team and the local officials and stayed away, no one would have batted an eye. It would’ve been a reasonable thing to do.
He had nothing to lose. His team would have released an announcement canceling the rally due to the circumstances, and he would’ve given his remarks at a more opportune time.
That isn’t what happened. To Kennedy, it was important that he spoke to those people that night. He had a responsibility to do what he could to help lessen the impact of news like that. That’s who he told the world he was, and that’s what he went to do, in spite of the danger.
The sooner we start to recognize what true leadership is, the better we can all affect change. Many parts of society have almost cheapened the word.
Leadership isn’t the executive who cuts a few jobs in his department to save costs but also flies on an expensed private jet for a reason no better than a sense of entitlement or his personal comfort.
Real leadership excites people because they want to be excited, not because someone told them they have to be. It’s about how consistently your actions align with your words and your message. It’s about authenticity, and it changes everything.
Inspiration is Underrated
Leadership is where change and progress begin, and there’s a reason why it’s effective.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
These words were spoken by Kennedy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 1966, and they speak to the power of what a true leader can do with the strength of inspiration. 2
When used authentically, inspiration is a tool capable of mobilizing an army of dedicated supporters, and a leader that truly and genuinely inspires can accomplish almost anything. It may begin as a ripple, but it compounds into something far larger and greater.
Many of us have a tendency to be skeptical of baseless hope, and we have a reason to be. We live in a world where our political systems and corporations are set up to overpromise and underdeliver. They cater for short-term gains, but not long-term commitment.
Real inspiration, however, is different. It’s about connection. It starts with a why, and it’s always about something more than just what’s on the surface or the person leading the charge. It ignites our passions, and it catalyzes action. It very compellingly binds people together.
It wasn’t a coincident that Indianapolis stayed calm on the eve of Dr. King’s death when there were riots – causing over 35 deaths and 2,500 injuries – across every major city in America.
Kennedy’s five short minutes of courage meant something to those people, and that simple act inspired a change in the behavior of an entire city. It might even have saved lives.
It’s easy to lean towards cynicism and neglect inspiration as unrealistic optimism. Many do, and they overlook one important thing – the power of words to affect reality on a grand scale.
All You Need to Know
Two months after that night in Indianapolis, Bobby Kennedy was himself assassinated.
Based on political affiliation and beyond, people will have their own opinion of the man, but on that night, at that moment, what he did was show a rare act of true leadership, and it inspired people, and it made a difference. It was about more than just politics as usual.
We have a tendency to carelessly define leadership based on occupation and perception.
We shouldn’t. Leadership isn’t about what we do for a living; it’s simply about what we do. It’s about authenticity, and it’s about the consistency of our actions in relation to our words.
The distinction is critical because true leadership inspires hope.
Writing off the role of inspiration in change and progress is a skeptic’s work, and we’re all that skeptic at one point or another. But it’s apt to remember that when a leader truly connects with a cause that excites our desires, it paves the way for action, and that’s where it all begins.
In our own lives, recognizing where we can be better leaders and actively pursuing to inspire can change the relationships we have with those around us, and it’s rarely in a bad way.
You don’t need permission to be a leader. You just need to evoke emotion and set an example.
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