Here’s a couple of concepts we generally know about MLK, but don’t often discuss:
- He cheated on his wife
- He smoked cigarettes fairly regularly; his autopsy at 39 claimed his heart was about 60
- He apparently plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation
- He potentially had limited ties to communist leaders
None of this is said in an effort to strike down Martin Luther King Jr. or hit at his legacy in any way. He is one of the most important people that lived in the last 100 years — and for America, he’s quite possibly one of the most important people ever.
Rather, there might be a broader lesson here.
Start with this assumption / logic:
No men — no people — are perfect.
If you believe that — or if you believe there was one perfect person in world history, and “we nailed him to a (expletive) cross” — then that’s a good place to start.
A lot of times, it seems that this idea of “leadership” — i.e. who will end up leading — comes down to looking the part (here’s an article claiming that). It’s often about the “right” people — which is very tied to the politics of the organization, of course — and this excludes, by definition, some people who are viewed as deeply-flawed or not fitting the bill. It’s kind of a microcosm of the whole idea that America would never elect a single President; you must, on surface, be a family man.
I think MLK, for the most part, did “look the part.” He seemed to predominantly dress well, and he often hid his smoking from the press because of concerns over backlash, etc. But just like other notable leaders of his time, i.e. JFK and LBJ, he was a flawed man. He preached and he spoke of morals, but he didn’t always abide by those in his own life. That happens to many people. Consistency is something we all chase, and struggle with, throughout life.
The idea of MLK as a leader, though, speaks to something bigger.
It’s this idea that when someone does something that seems courageous, it might not actually be courageous. It might be something they believe needed to be done: