Lessons in creative problem solving from MLK

Wisdom from Martin Luther King Jr. can do more than just motivate and inspire. His words hold meaning for anyone trying to reach a goal.

Lessons in creative problem solving from MLK
[Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), [Reproduction number LC-USZ62-126559]/ Dick DeMarsico.]

Martin Luther King Jr. may be one of the most well-known and oft-quoted leaders of our time. But did you ever stop to think that his inspirational aphorisms on justice, peace, and equality might also hold the keys to creative problem-solving?


Looking closely at many of his writings and speeches, we uncovered some gems that can illuminate the way forward when you’re stuck in a personal or professional rut.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

The thing about solving problems–especially of the thorny variety–is that in our quest for a certain outcome, we don’t necessarily know the path that will take us there. This is where MLK’s wisdom comes in handy. He urges us to just get started and believe in our ability to climb even though we may not be able to visualize the top.

Having faith also means that you need to have a deep-rooted belief in the parts of the process you know you can control. In a literal sense, you know you can raise your leg and put your foot in the middle of the first step and pull yourself up. When it comes to other goals, like negotiating a raise or interviewing for a job, you know that when you enter the room you can smile, shake hands, and look the other person in the eye. Visualizing these small actions and believing that you can do them, can affect the outcome in a positive way–even if you don’t get the pay bump or the position.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Losing momentum may be one of the toughest challenges to overcome when you’re trying to reach a goal. The trick, embedded in this nugget of MLK’s is to just keep moving–even if that forward motion isn’t going to send you from zero to 60 in three seconds. One productivity expert suggests keeping a list on hand of tasks you can complete in 15 minutes or less. Ticking that off the to-do list boosts the sense of accomplishment and may just be the space you need to rethink your approach to the larger goal.

“Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”

There’s a popular style of leadership that is characterized by what top brass can do for their reports. At its most extreme, it can be illustrated by the CEO doing entry-level work in an effort to boost employee morale and engagement. This so-called servant leadership can also help high-ranking officials discover the true heartbeat of their organization, which they wouldn’t otherwise hear if they’re constantly sequestered in meetings or segregated in their offices.


Service keeps leaders humble and humility is a great approach to problem-solving, according to Mike DeFrino, CEO of Kimpton Hotels. “There’s a lot more to learn and gain by listening to your employees and stop thinking that you have all the great suggestions and the answers to the questions,” he told Fast Company in a previous interview.

“I had spoken hastily and resentfully. Yet I knew that this was no way to solve a problem. ‘You must not harbor anger,’ I admonished myself. ‘You must be willing to suffer the anger of the opponent, and yet not return anger. You must not become bitter. No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm.'”

As this quote illustrates, King wasn’t always calm and peaceful in the face of challenges. Here he was regretting losing his cool over the stalemate over the Montgomery bus boycotts in 1955. But there’s a lesson for us to learn through this glimpse into his less-than-perfect, yet all-too-human response. It helps to remember this when you’re staring down a person or situation that is getting on your last nerve. Understand your limitations, and take a beat before you blow your stack rather than beat yourself up about it later.

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

When an idea or goal is at stake, many of us would go to the mat to prove that it’s worthy. This can lead to tension and conflict with our teammates or supervisors, or worse, someone giving in at the expense of a better idea or solution. The better way to handle it borrows from MLK’s quote. Recognize that you are working together.

As Josh Davis, PhD, and Hitendra Wadhwa, PhD, wrote in Fast Company, “When you find a way to agree with something other than the solution to the problem you’re debating, you can shift the frame of the conversation to include a factor you both see as true and relevant. That makes it easier for the other person to lay down their arms and stop fighting. Instead, they start listening.”

“Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

Although King gave this speech to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia in 1967, it’s just as relevant for adults today. Especially those who are leading startups. We’ve often heard that slow and steady wins the race–everywhere except in Silicon Valley (and it’s startup-centric counterparts around the globe). It takes courage to follow King’s words and focus on being the best rather than the biggest and fastest.


Jessica Rovello, CEO and cofounder of gaming company Arkadium, recently modeled this wisdom when she bought it back from its VC investors. “We are building a people-first, long-term business,” she told Fast Company in a previous interview. “It is very surprising to me that in so many other areas of society, we have evolved to take a long-term view of things, like the environment. I don’t understand why that hasn’t translated to business, and why this short-sighted, short-term, high-growth, high-burnout scenario is considered the ultimate calling for a company.”

“May I stress the need for courageous, intelligent, and dedicated leadership. Leaders of sound integrity.”

Regardless what your job title is, this other quote from King isn’t just helpful to remember when solving problems. Rather it can be seen as an all-purpose appeal for everyone to be mindful of how they interact with others all day long. Taken together, these characteristics play into the core tenets of emotional intelligence which is one of the fastest-growing skills employers are seeking in candidates. High emotional intelligence is key to influencing people in an organization at any level. And that can create all kinds of opportunities to succeed.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.