Leadership lessons from Martin Luther King

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., great leaders demonstrate that ordinary people can have an impact. (Photo: Michael Goderre, Boston Children’s)

Among those who helped shape American history, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands out. As one of the key leaders of the civil rights movement, he was instrumental in overturning racist laws that separated public spaces and treated black Americans as second-class citizens. After years of marches and sit-ins, after nonviolent protesters were brutally attacked and the resulting national outcry, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Boston Children’s celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. each January in an event that typically draws standing crowds. When the pandemic forced the cancellation of large gatherings, organizers moved the event online. In 2021 and 2022, attendance soared to nearly 1,000.

It took thousands of people to achieve these civil rights milestones, and it took a leader like Dr. King to unite them around a common goal. “People marched with Martin Luther King even though they knew they could be beaten,” says Karol Jordan, chairman of the MLK observance committee at Boston Children’s Hospital. “They believed in his vision and knew he would stand with them.”

Here, Jordan and two other MLK Observance Committee organizers talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., his legacy, and how he inspires them as leaders.

Leaders draw their strength from their convictions

Shani Kelly, Operations Administrator and Executive Assistant, Human Resources; Member of the MLK Observation Committee since 2019: Martin Luther King refused to sit down and live with injustice. He envisioned a world in which his children, his people, would not be judged by the color of their skin. He motivated people to face their fears and never give up. I carry this lesson with me. As a leader you are going to face challenges, you may fail, but leadership is about getting back up – with grace, with poise and courage – and having the strength within you to get back up. You have to have that kind of persistence to be a leader.

Seven of the members of the MLK compliance committee.
Tribute to Dr. King in 2020. Front row: Shani Kelley, Dr. Jessica Daniels, Karol Jordan. Back row: Malissa Williams, Sheila Wornum, Lillian Hughes, Ourania Pappas. (Photo: Michael Goderre, Boston Children’s)

Leaders lift people up

Angela Perry in a hot pink jacket and necklace.
Angela Perry: Leaders can’t be tired. They have to be there for their team.

Angela Perry, Practice Administrator, Martha Eliot Health Center; Member of the MLK Observation Committee since 2013: Martin Luther King taught me that leadership is what people take away when you’re gone. Has your presence impacted them in a way that cultivates change and moves the needle? I make it a point to know everyone who works at Martha Eliot by name. I ask them how they are and wait for an answer. It is important that they know that I care about them, where they work and what their working conditions are.

Karol Jordan, Technical Training Specialist, Human Resources; Member of the MLK Observation Committee since 1995: People remember what you make them feel more than what you say. I always want people to feel they can come to me and be treated with respect. When we plan this event, we don’t always agree, but we are always respectful. I make sure that everyone has the opportunity to share their point of view, because every voice counts.

Leaders roll up their sleeves in the face of the crisis

Angela: He had a leadership style on the pitch that inspires the way I approach my role. The pandemic has drained our resources like never before. As a leader, I must understand that many Martha Eliot staff face the same issues as our patients. But we expect them to come to work every day and rise to the occasion. Leaders cannot be weary; they have to be there for their team. For me, that means getting out of my office and working alongside my staff, making sure they know I have my back. Leaders need to be connected.

Leaders inspire change

Shani: He was a transformational leader. He believed in what he was doing, he communicated his vision effectively and he convinced others. These are the qualities of a great leader: they demonstrate how ordinary people can have an impact. I always remind my team members that they are part of the change. If they want to see change, if they want career growth, if they want more commitment, they need to sit on committees and have their voices heard.

Leaders grow through mentorship

Carol: I stand on the shoulders of the people who mentored me at The Children’s. I came here 44 years ago and many people have guided me along the way. Early in my career, my supervisor called me into his office and told me things that helped get me on the right track. When she left, she made me supervisor. His leadership changed my life. It’s one of the things we celebrate when we celebrate Dr. King.

Angela: Karol is also a processor. She empowered all of us to hold leadership positions on the MLK committee. She delegates and she trusts the people to whom she entrusts tasks. She does not seek praise. She has guided us fearlessly all these years and continues to push the boundaries. Thanks to her, the MLK Observance at Boston Children’s remained relevant, it did not fall to the side. She is the kind of leader we need, not only at the hospital, but in our communities.

Boston Children’s Leadership in Health Equity

Today, the health and well-being of far too many children suffer from lack of access to care. Through multiple initiatives, Boston Children’s strives to ensure that all children receive the care they need, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or economic status. Our Office of Health Equity and Inclusion works with hospital departments to promote culturally effective care. The Sandra L. Fenwick Institute for Equity and Inclusion in Pediatric Health advances pediatric health equity by sharing what we learn at Boston Children’s with providers nationwide and around the world.

Martin Luther King Observation Committee

Karol Jordan, Senior Technical Training Specialist, Human Resources
Lillian Hughes, Manager, Patient Financial Services
Shani Kelly, Operations Administrator and Executive Assistant to the Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Director of System Human Resources and Vice President of Human Resources
Ourania Pappas, Web Training Developer, Clinical and IT Training
Angela Perry, Practice Administrator I – Amb, Martha Eliot Health Center
malissa williams, Supervisor, Food Services
Sheila Wornum, Clinical-Administrative Coordinator, Anesthesia, Intensive Care and Pain Medicine

Learn about health equity and inclusion initiatives at Boston Children’s.

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