Exactly two months before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church how he wanted to be remembered after he had to meet his day.
In a speech known as “The Drum Major Instinct.”
You might think that a man who won a Nobel Peace Prize, who collected hundreds of other awards, and whose Dream became one of the most memorable speeches in the history of the world, might want such momentous achievements at least mentioned.
Not Dr. King.
Here is how Dr. King said that he wanted to be remembered:
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Let this serve as a new definition of greatness for all of us.
What is greatness?
The word “greatness” has a variety of definitions and uses. Merriam-Webster defines it as “exceptionally high quality” and “the quality or state of being large in size.”
But I’m talking about greatness in a different context.
I’m talking about our individual greatness as human beings, as citizens of Earth, as participants in humanity. The kind of greatness that our pride pushes us to believe we’re capable of achieving.
But our pride can only push us so far … because true human greatness demands humility. The kind that C.S. Lewis spoke about:
True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.
The kind of greatness that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived.
A new definition of greatness
In the “The Drum Major Instinct,” Dr. King tells the biblical story of James and John, who make a specific request of Jesus that he “let one of us sit on the right hand and the other on the left hand of your throne.”
Who do James and John think they are, right?
Dr. King implores the congregation to not judge them. He says:
Let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first.
The drum major instinct: “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”
Dr. King goes on to explain the many ways that the drum major instinct manifests itself in normal life. Eventually he says, “There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive … If it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted … If it isn’t harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting.”
Dr. King is describing the life-altering different between pride and conceit.
Please, read the entire speech. Dr. King describes the deleterious effects of excess pride — or in his terms, an unharnessed drum major instinct — as well as I’ve ever seen them described.
The key words in that last sentence are excess and unharnessed, because remember: pride kept in check is good. Even Jesus agrees, as he is quoted by Dr. King:
And he said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.’
And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, ‘Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.’ This is what Jesus said to James and John. ‘You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared.’
Then, inspired by the words of Jesus, Dr. King provided his own definition for greatness:
If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great –wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
Takeaway: servant leadership is the path to greatness.
Be a drum major … who serves
Do you remember the uproar when people as esteemed as the late Maya Angelou demanded that the inscription on the Martin Luther King memorial be changed?
It said: “I was a drum major for justice, righteousness, and peace.”
First, this an inappropriately abridged quote from “The Drum Major Instinct.” Second, and most egregious, it is taken out of context, and thus gives the exact opposite impression that Dr. King was trying to give.
Here is the full quote from the speech:
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace, I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.
What do you want to leave behind?
And what are you a drum major for? Are you a drum major for yourself … or for others?
The former might make you great in some endeavor of fleeting importance, but the latter will help to make the world better by serving others — which makes you great in a way that matters.
As Dr. King rhymes:
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
And as he concludes, speaking of his own desire to someday be on Jesus’ left or right side:
But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.
Primility is an ages-old concept
Reading Dr. King’s speech reminded me that the only element of Primility that is original is the word.
Everything that’s been said on this site, and that will be said in the future, is just a different way of saying and describing what some of the greatest thinkers and leaders in world history have been saying and doing all along.
I do take pride in that. Hey, our discussions about this topic are in good company right?
But I am also incredibly humbled because all I’ve really done here is grab a torch that’s been burning for a long, long time.
What I’m getting at is that if defining greatness by serving is good enough for Jesus and Dr. King — two of the greatest servant-leaders in world history — then it’s sure good enough for me.
How do you define greatness?
And did reading this post change your definition in any way?
I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
Thank you for reading.
Flickr Creative Commons Image of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. via Zach Frailey.