Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream — a Spend Management Celebration

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US. Even though it would be possible to nitpick some of his accomplishments (e.g., the fact he plagiarized much of his graduate thesis and even aspects of his most famous speech), Dr. King stands as one of the most important leaders in the Civil Rights movement because of his influence and success advocating non-violent protest at a time when violence against blacks (and black violence in response) was the norm. I think for many of us living today -- especially those born after the Civil Rights movement -- it's hard to understand the world in which Martin Luther King Jr. formed and practiced his ideology.

While the point of this holiday is not to draw parallels with how Dr. King would have philosophized about how best to manage suppliers, I do think we can (and should) take his message seriously in our everyday roles. For Dr. King, non-violence was not a symbol of passivity. He once wrote on the subject of evil "he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." If we substitute "evil" with the phrase "exploitative management" we can begin to see that Dr. King was as much an advocate for action as anyone, despite his advocation of non-violence.

But which of his lessons are best suited to the Spend Management world? I would say that the importance of both action (without violence) and the use of clear and effective language to convey one's point (versus yelling and demanding) are absolutely critical in getting what we want from our supply base -- not to mention sending the right message about how we expect to be treated. This is not to say that non-violence means non-confrontation. Just the opposite in fact. But civil confrontation is much more difficult than the kind that relies on verbal abuse and threats. And as Dr. King knew, it's also much more effective.

Dr. King led with his heart -- not just his head. He inspired those around him, just as the best in all professions do, through the conviction behind his words -- and because he backed up these words by living them to the fullest. His example suggests that we all, including most procurement and operations managers, have much to learn when it comes to how best to work with customers, suppliers, internal constituents and peers alike. How so? For one, follow Dr. King's leadership mode -- lead by example versus simply from the memo (or the weekly team meeting). Don't go getting arrested -- if you know what I mean -- but come as close to it as necessary in support of your team and their goals when the situation demands it.

I'd also suggest that we take non-violent action seriously. Don't "beat-up" suppliers as many of us (myself included) were trained to do. Work with them, work to change the system and find out what they need to overcome to get where you need them to be. This takes time. In Dr King's words, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent." How many of us have felt that in both our own roles -- and the larger role our function plays in the organization -- that we are ridden vs. propelled with self-determination, moving the cart forward because we know how best to do it by working with, not for, others?

When I was younger, I found Dr. King intellectually disingenuous, an example of someone who, if he were white, would have been ridiculed in the annals of history for taking other's thoughts and representing them as his own. But I've mellowed with age for today I look at his life and his writings -- even those that were borrowed -- in a different light. The Civil Rights movement did not just need Martin Luther King's words and actions at the time -- his bravery, brilliance and leadership served as the bulwark of the Civil Rights movement then and now. His life -- and how he lived it -- is something that we can, and need to, continue learning from today both socially and professionally.

We need not look further than the manner in which this holiday is treated (e.g., most all businesses are open) to see that Dr. Kings "Dream" is still a work in process. Is not our quest for social equality and justice as important as honoring our war heroes on Memorial Day and our work force on Labor Day? Of course it is. Please join me in celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day by reflecting upon the role we must all play in making our businesses and country even greater pillars of justice, honesty and civility in every aspect of our lives and the lives of others.

- Jason Busch

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