The Drum Major Instinct

"The Drum Major Instinct" is one of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. sermons. It asks, “What does it mean to step forward to lead and serve?” This is especially important for any of us with a burning desire to create change in our society. So, what is the nature of your own path?

It's no accident that I waited until the day after official events ended to write about MLK. I often worry about national celebrations like MLK Day – the hoopla, the commentary, the speechifying, the parades. I suppose that's how things in mass culture unfold.

But amid all the activity I was reminded of The Drum Major Instinct, the beloved sermon about our own desire to be in front of the parade, to lead, to be recognized. I found myself gravitating toward it all weekend. So, I reached for the sermon and re-read it, yet again, much like I would read a familiar prayer, once more, able to find new meaning as I recited the words, as if for the first time.

I have selected a few lines from the sermon for you to consider. No, the fact is that I really don’t want you to “consider” them at all; I want you to engage with them – to open yourself up and let them touch you. I urge you to do so alone; then maybe find some other people to sit with. Examine your own path.

So here are three segments from The Drum Major Instinct and some questions I’ve posed to each of us:

1. "…deep down within all of us [is] an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct – a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first." Is that true for you? If so, what's motivating you?

2. "I guess that's the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality." King said that the desire to be out front can lead people to be "boastful," even "lie," to engage in "activities that are merely used to get attention," to "push others down in order to push himself up," for "snobbish exclusivism" and to justify "prejudice." What does the desire to be out in front of the parade do to you? What damaging aspects can you identify within yourself?

3. "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice… for peace… for righteousness." So said King about himself; list three things why you're a drum major – and don’t worry, they can be big or small.

Some people might say that my own desire to focus on the drum major instinct misses the point in today's rough-and-tumble world. Our focus must be on winning in partisan politics, enacting government ethic laws and campaign finance reform, creating some new technology.

I don’t doubt that these and other matters are important. But I also know that if we are not clear on why we’re leading then we will not reach our own aspirations or fill the breaches that now exist in society.

Self interest will always be a part of us; we cannot wring it out of our nature. But we can be drum majors, where our words and actions are filled with purpose greater than just our own good. Let us use MLK Day to renew our own instincts to lead the parade in the right direction. If not now, then when?