Plan, Commit, Succeed

Six months before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about buildings and blueprints to junior high students in Philadelphia.

Common Cents by Lurita Doan

“Whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, and a building is not well erected without a good, solid blueprint,” Dr. King said. “Now each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is whether you have a proper, a solid and a sound blueprint.”

The advice is as fresh and relevant as when offered in October 1967. The words also touch me in a special way, as I am the second African American and first woman to head the U.S. General Services Administration. The construction analogy too strikes a chord, as GSA happens to be the agency in charge of new buildings and courthouses nationwide for federal workers and judges.

As well, we are the stewards of more than 4,000 historic properties such as the Custom House in Philadelphia, which opened in 1934. The facility was created under the Works Progress Administration, part of the federal government’s blueprint to put Americans back to work after the Great Depression.

Responsibility for such legacy buildings is an awesome job – one amid many diverse tasks assigned to GSA - that must indeed begin with a good, solid blueprint. I wonder, as we read Dr. King’s words four decades later, what the youngsters took away that day and whether it helped as they grew into adults.

“Number one in your life's blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity …” he said. Second is the “determination to achieve excellence.” Dr. King urged the students to stay in school and prepare themselves for “doors of opportunities that were not open to your mothers and your fathers.”

Before becoming Administrator, I created a small business that grew into one of the nation’s leading systems integrators in government security and surveillance technology. In so doing, I extended a tradition of family entrepreneurship that dated back to my great-grandmother, who sold pralines on the docks of New Orleans shortly after President Lincoln ended slavery. And my grandmother started a small business school in 1908 that taught black women to be legal secretaries at a time when women still couldn’t vote.

From family role models and others, I learned to seize opportunity when it appeared, because it simply may not come around again. I also learned that each of us has an enormous capacity for rationalization. We convince ourselves we can’t take advantage of an opportunity for any number of reasons. We must grant ourselves the gift of being willing to accept opportunity when it appears.

From Dr. King, I also learned another valuable lesson: many like to talk about innovation and change. But for most, this means strategize “a little,” or change “just a bit.” Truly transformational change requires thinking big. It requires thinking of concepts, ideals and yes, dreams.

Because true innovation is scary, change is scary. And innovation and change usually require some degree of sacrifice, sometimes, as in the case of Dr. King -- extraordinary sacrifice.

I also learned from Dr. King that you can’t always expect everyone to be willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice. That’s okay too. Sometimes it’s enough if they’ll walk just a little of the way with you. Dr. King proved if just a few walk with you even part of the way, and you, yourself, are willing to stay the course, great things can be accomplished.

Dr. King understood the meaning of excellence and sacrifice, for he said: “When you discover what you will be in your life, he said, set out to do it as if God almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it … if it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, then sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures … “

Begin with a solid design. Commit to excellence. They were simple messages etched out of the turbulent Sixties by one of history’s most influential and revered figures. Like our nation’s legacy buildings, Dr. King’s words need no adjustment or redesign; they remain a blueprint for success at the dawn of 2008.

Lurita Doan is Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration

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