It has been a difficult month for the United States and for the world. Over the past weeks, protests at the University of Missouri and Yale University have raised tensions about deep-seated race issues. In France and Lebanon, terrorists have killed dozens of innocent people. Across Europe, refugees are fleeing from life-threatening situations to find peace and safety.
The world is hurting. While they are immensely complex, these problems stem, at least in part, from a clash of differences. Nations, religious groups, racial groups and cultures have failed to understand or empathize with each other. At the same time, the world is becoming smaller, and people are clamoring to be heard and respected. We seem to be at a crossroads, and the ways we act and react will shape our world’s future.
Too often, people respond to these kinds of tragedies with hatred and discrimination, the same problems that have led us down this road. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, Poland’s government announced it would no longer take part in the EU’s refugee resettlement plan. In the U.S., a number of politicians have similarly rejected refugees. Some have even suggested admitting only Christian refugees.
Ted Cruz argued there is “no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” while Syrian Muslims pose a risk to the United States. His argument, which ignores the acts of terror committed by Christians, perpetuates an “us vs. them” mentality based purely on religion.
In times of fear and hardship, it can be easy to reject people who fall into an oversimplified “other” category. These kinds of responses are all too common. Today, we may want to look back to Martin Luther King Jr., who, in the face of massive discrimination and fear, consistently promoted unity.
In his famous final speech on April 3, 1968, King proclaimed his belief that people of all colors are children of God. He stated, “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same. … We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity.”
He continued that we must fight for each other, and we must try to bring other people out of oppression, even if we ourselves are not oppressed. King advised, “Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”
In troubling times, it’s natural to feel afraid. It’s natural to want to put our security first and to minimize any possible threats. However, we shouldn’t let our fears compromise our values, and we shouldn’t allow fear to take away our compassion for fellow humans. King recognized the importance of standing up to fear. In fact, as he prepared to give his April 3 speech, his life was under threat. On his way to Memphis, his flight had been delayed by a bomb threat. In his speech, King acknowledged those threats and called the white men who had threatened him “brothers.” He called on everyone listening to stand unified and to “rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.” The following evening, King was assassinated while standing on his hotel balcony. He died holding onto a conviction that the world was moving toward equality and harmony; that we were moving toward the promised land.
These times of fear will test our values. If we claim to value freedom, equality and compassion, we must exercise those values and extend those rights to others. Poverty, oppression and discrimination will breed crime, anger and division. We can’t fix all of these problems with good will alone, but we can all participate in the fight to lift others out of oppression and suffering. We can open ourselves up to compassion and empathy instead of closing ourselves off with fear and misplaced hatred. We must recognize that diversity strengthens, not weakens us.
As global leaders, we can take the lead in promoting these positive values. On an organizational level, we must recognize the importance of diversity, and we must enforce the necessity of respect for all. We also have the opportunity to work internationally and build bridges of trust. Both within your organization and outside of it, extend yourself beyond your familiar networks to engage with others and form new connections. Engage in open conversations about your observations about the world. You may want to speak in particular about the challenge of conflict and how it might affect your organization.
Keep in mind that you, as a global leader, have a unique and informed world perspective. You can share your knowledge with others, and you can also stay open to continuously learning from other leaders around you. Within your community, recognize that you are a leader. As a leader, your voice matters. Use your impact to promote compassion, empathy and respect. As always, you can use your position as a global leader to positively shape the world around you.
The night before he died, King said, “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” Amid all this darkness, let’s all strive to see the stars.