Life Lessons MLK Taught His Daughter

It’s easy to become our own worst enemy. As leaders, we often put pressure on ourselves to succeed or live up to our internalized high standards. Add that to the pressures and standards the world has set for us, and it can be incredibly overwhelming. But imagine being the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the expectations the world sets for you and the expectations you’d have for yourself. Daunting, right? 

At this year’s inaugural Leadercast Women event, Dr. Bernice A. King, Martin and Coretta Scott King’s youngest child, addressed those expectations directly:

“My mother used to tell me and my siblings, ‘whatever you do in this life, you don’t have to be me or your dad.’ That has kept me sane, trust me. With the enormity of their legacies, I’ve had to return to that over and over again.”

One of the things that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew clearly was his own purpose on this earth, and his daughter found a way to act on her purpose as well as CEO of The King Center. Backstage at Leadercast Women, she explained some of the most valuable lessons she learned from her parents. Here they are, in her own words:

> “[Life] is all about serving others.”

> “Understand that you have gifts and talents to offer the world. A lot of people do feel pressure because of the competitive nature of our society to try to outdo somebody else. But really, if you sit still and dig deep within yourself, you’ll discover everything you need to know that is necessary for you to live a fulfilling and complete life.”

> “Both of [my parents] started from the inside out, asking, ‘What is the world that I live in, and what do I want to see be different?’ And they went on this internal quest for that.”

> “My mother went to Antioch College [in Yellow Springs, Ohio, whose founder] was Horace Mann. There was a statue of him on campus that said, ‘Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.’ She carried that with her... and she had no idea what [her victory] was going to end up being, and oftentimes we don’t. We don’t know where we’re going to end up, but you pick up these nuggets through life and these different experiences, and it all comes together in a moment.

> “One of the biggest challenges is learning how to listen. Not just to what people say, but to what they’re not saying, and really trying to hear what will bring value to everyone.”

> “When you die, will it matter that you were born? [That question] doesn’t scare me; it drives me. It tells me that there’s something inside of me that I have to offer. Otherwise, that question would not be posed to me by the universe. It puts me in a mode of really looking forward and searching out. You just have to open up your mind to the fact that you have something to contribute and offer. And if you affirm that, then life will meet you in a lot of different ways through experiences, encounters, conversations, something you might see or read—it just opens you up further and further and further, and before you know it, you’re doing [what you set out to do].”

> “What you feel called to do, you can do anywhere. People get totally stuck on ‘the job.’ The job is for income, and that has nothing to do with your purpose. You can fulfill that purpose anywhere.”

Take these lessons with you, not only as we collectively celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, but as you consider the type of leader you aspire to be. What expectations do you have for yourself that are holding you back from delivering on  your purpose? Don’t let yourself be your worst enemy, and never allow it to hinder you from following through on your calling.


*Photo credit: National Park Service