MLK Day Tribute: Student Lessons in Leadership

As the nation pays tribute to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. – on a day that also happens to be the presidential inauguration celebration for our country’s top leader – Knowledge@Wharton High School asked students from around the country how they define leadership.Read More

by Diana Drake


On January 20, Rey David Santiago, 18, stepped up to the microphone in a public school auditorium in his hometown of Madera, Calif., and spoke from the heart – el corazón. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Santiago had been selected to speak to school officials and members of the community about leadership and his dreams.

“The theme of my speech was ‘Dreams of Today’s Students and Leaders of Tomorrow,’” said Santiago, a senior at Madera County Independent Academy. “I talked about my personal dreams that started when I was young – for Mexican and immigrant students, no matter what the circumstances, to try and to not give up. They must not let their dreams fade away, because dreams are what push everything forward,” adds Santiago, who moved with his family to California from Oaxaca, Mexico, when he was eight, and plans to study engineering technology in college. “Leadership to me is to help my people, my community and anybody who needs help — to help them in any way I can.”

A Better Tomorrow

On January 21, King’s birthday, the nation celebrates the life and legacy of the 1960s civil rights leader, whose inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech about a country free of racial divide still resonates with students like Santiago. In his podcast, “Leadership Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” author Michael Hyatt says he believes that the “I Have a Dream” speech offers several key insights into what it means to be a great leader. For instance, he notes, great leaders engage the heart, refuse to settle and paint a vivid picture of a better tomorrow.

So as the nation pays tribute to a great leader – Knowledge@Wharton High School asked students from around the U.S., many of whom are involved in the National Youth Leadership Council, a nonprofit that promotes service learning in schools, how they define leadership:

“Leadership means being actively involved in your community and causes that are dear to your heart. It means inspiring others to be motivated to do something and to accomplish a goal that they have. I will be going to college next year at St. Edwards University in Austin, Tex., and I plan to major in global studies. I want to then go on to medical school, become a surgeon and eventually go to third world countries and do pro bono surgeries [for people who can’t afford them].”  – Haley Holliday, 17, senior, Atascocita High School, Humble, Tex.

“A leader has to be charismatic and has to inspire people to follow him. He also has to be confident in the way that he can’t be afraid to share what he is thinking or feeling. He should be determined to stay on his path. A great leader is someone who takes on leadership when other people don’t know what to do, what path to take or how to accomplish some goal. He also does it in a way that is beneficial to everyone around him, just as Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished his [civil rights] goals through nonviolence.”  – Sujay Rao, 15, sophomore, Eden Prairie High School, Eden Prairie, Minn.

“Being a good leader is having people want to follow you rather than forcing people to follow you. You also need to carry yourself in a way that people want to carry themselves similarly.”  – Berkley Cohn, 17, senior, The Galloway School, Atlanta, Georgia

“A great leader is someone who is passionate about what they do. If someone is passionate about helping people, they can go into politics and be a great leader. If someone is passionate about selling cars, they can become a great leader as a car salesman. It’s all about your passion. I am really into politics and trying to make a difference. I’m part of student council and the Model United Nations at my school. I volunteered on the Obama campaign. One day I want to run for office, and before that I’m thinking about [pursuing] law.” – Kristopher Brown, 18, senior, Lincoln Charter School, Lincolnton, North Carolina

“A great leader is a person who is able to understand when it’s time to take action and be a leader, but also when it is time to step back and let others become leaders. I do projects with my service-learning group [in my role with the National Youth Leadership Council]. I like to take control of the situation, but I’m learning to let go of some of the control because it’s not just my project; it’s everyone’s project. A person truly doesn’t learn or grow if someone is constantly telling them what to do and they’re not allowed that creative outlet. People have a way of surprising you more often than not, and they are more capable than you think.”  – Mallory Keller, 17, senior, Belton High School, Belton, Missouri

Related Links

Conversation Starters

How do you define leadership? Do you agree or disagree with any of these students’ ideas and insights?

In your opinion, can anyone be a great leader? Why or why not?

Are you a good leader? If so, why? In what specific ways do you develop your leadership skills?

6 comments on “MLK Day Tribute: Student Lessons in Leadership

  1. I really admire the way that some of these students have causes that they strongly believe and that they have made it their lifelong goal to see it through.

  2. There is nothing wrong with dreaming, but dreams are useless without action. In life, one must conquer fear and take risk in order to be successful.

  3. I agree with Mallory Keller! Sometimes it is totally more effective and important to step back: “People have a way of surprising you more often than not, and they are more capable than you think.” Very well-put! 🙂

  4. I am really very much impressed by this motivating article & I would like to add that “we must have dreams absolutely but those dreams must hold the hopes for others also.The dream that makes someone hopeful about the things will truly be fulfilled.”
    I have realised that in the race of winning competition they might neglect those who are not able to stand their own. so when we make other’s dreams ours,that dream becomes golden dream!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *