Obama and King's 'Dream' speech

The power of great oratory to bring about change has shifted since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech. President Obama and recent US presidents have struggled to adjust to new demands for different styles of leadership.

AP Photo
President Obama speaks at the Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

President Obama marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with one of his own, also delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The speech was not only a moment to take stock of racial and equality issues in America but a chance to take measure of how much great oratory can stir the conscience of millions.

King’s speech helped galvanize public support for civil rights legislation during a historic decade. The impact of television was just starting to peak. In contrast, Mr. Obama, while also a gifted speaker, has discovered – as many recent presidents have – that great speeches no longer easily result in action by Congress or gain support from Americans and world leaders. More people are unplugging themselves from TV. And the days of a “transformative presidency” may be over.

Times have changed since the 1960s as social and technological trends have altered notions of authority and the source of power. In fact, scholars of leadership say many of today’s best leaders are more effective by the quality of their listening than by the appeal of their rhetoric. With better education, ease of information, and an explosion of ideas, individuals feel more in control of what to think. One obvious example is how young workers show little loyalty to employers.

Harvard University scholar Barbara Kellerman even penned a book last year titled “The End of Leadership.” She writes, “The fundamental model based on the leader at the center is wrong.” She claims we are now in an era of followership. Relationships count more than rhetoric. Setting examples counts more than words. Inspiration is not given by one person but drawn out from the many to be folded into collaboration.

Another Harvard scholar, Joseph Nye, has studied presidential leadership and concludes that presidents who were “transactional” managers or “incremental” leaders may be better than those with great communication skills. He cites Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush as quiet realists who were effective by being cautiously and quietly wise, listening to the needs of other world leaders rather than speaking with flourish and moralisms.

One of King’s great gifts was listening. In fact, during his famed speech, he was sensitive enough to those listening to him and added the line “I have a dream,” departing from his well-scripted speech. Perhaps we now remember the line not because he was leading but rather because he realized how many people, both in the crowd and watching on TV, had brought their hopes and dreams to him. On that day, and in that time, he was a mirror on the conscience of a nation in transition to a new era.

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