Last updated: 3 July 2019
Note: This article was originally published in January 2016, but was expanded on 29 November 2016
Few people would deny that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great leader, but what was it, exactly, that he put into his leadership?
And even more to the point, how can you exhibit those qualities yourself?
In this tribute to the civil rights leader that shaped an entire movement, you’ll find out how you can develop the same qualities MLK honed into his own fine art of leadership.
1. The Why of Leadership
Martin Luther King wasn’t a leader because he wanted fame, power, or prestige.
He became a leader because he saw great injustice being systematically inflicted on an entire race of people.
There were millions of people hurting and suffering, and he made it his mission to become the leader of a movement that would help them.
If you find your leadership lacks a certain spark, engage in some serious self-reflection with this simple question: Why?
Figure out the why behind your leadership.
If your why doesn’t extend beyond yourself, you might become a good leader, but you’ll never be a great leader like MLK. He devoted his leadership to serving others.
As MLK himself put it:
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”
Answering that single question has the potential to catalyze your own leadership into one that is truly great and noble.
2. A Compelling Vision
MLK certainly had a compelling vision.
His vision was compelling enough to attract more than 200,000 people to participate in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.
In his famous I Have a Dream speech that day, MLK described his vision in many different ways, but perhaps the most succinct and compelling description of all was this moving sentence:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Powerful, right? When you’ve figured out the why of your leadership, you must then take the time to expand and craft it into a full-blown vision towards which your leadership is directed.
Imagine the future state where your why has been perfectly fulfilled. What does it look like?
Fully describe it in all its glorious detail and you’ll have all that you need when it comes time to share your vision with others.
3. Unflinching Honesty About What’s Wrong With the Status Quo
In that same I Have a Dream speech, MLK laid out with brutal honesty just what’s wrong with the status quo and why it must be changed.
In its most general sense, isn’t change what all leadership is for?
Here’s how MLK put it in the beginning of his speech, after highlighting the importance of President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation:
“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”
If you’ve taken the time to answer the why and describe the vision for your leadership, now you can clearly compare the desired future state to the status quo and show just how different they are.
Don’t hold anything back, here.
MLK certainly didn’t hold back in describing the extreme injustices faced by African Americans in the 1960s.
4. Charisma and Authenticity
There can be no doubt that MLK was a very charismatic leader, but he wasn’t only a charismatic leader – he was also an authentic leader.
Charisma without authenticity is what happens when leaders are more concerned with their own image and power than with a larger purpose beyond themselves.
Politicians can sometimes get caught up in this scenario, using their finely honed charisma to make sure they win the next election and maintain the power they’ve become used to exercising.
But people can and will eventually see through a lack of authenticity, although sometimes only in hindsight.
MLK was known for speaking his mind, not mincing words, and yet always being an uplifting presence.
Walking the fine line that must join charisma and authenticity – how does one do that?
It’s really about the first two items on this list: Knowing the why of your leadership and its compelling vision.
If you always keep those as your primary motivators, then you can’t help but be both charismatic and authentic.
You must master the art of setting the ego aside and constantly asking yourself if there is a gap between what you say and what you do. If there is, you need to close that gap to be authentic. As MLK put it:
“I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.”
5. Powerful Communication
I urge you to both read and listen to a recording of MLK delivering his I Have a Dream speech.
It is truly one of the most remarkable pieces of oratory in American history.
It highlights just how important powerful communication was to his leadership – and is to yours as well.
So was MLK a gifted writer or a gifted speaker?
Clearly, he was both.
Read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to see his writing skills. You can also easily imagine him speaking those words as well. He wrote great speeches and he knew how to deliver them like the fiery Baptist preacher from the South he was.
If you want to take your leadership to the next level, there’s no substitute for mastering the crafts of writing and public speaking. Sign up for courses on both and begin reaping the benefits for your leadership.
MLK understood the power of communication to further his leadership cause when he said the following:
“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.”
Let that be your inspiration to become the best public speaker (and writer) you can possibly be – after all, your why and your compelling vision depend on it.
6. Tenacious Perseverance
MLK exhibited an unwavering passion and unshakable conviction that he was doing the right thing.
How else could he have withstood the injustices he himself experienced – beatings, jail, the relentless harassing by the Ku Klux Klan?
Through it all he stood tall and proud of what his leadership was accomplishing. He believed in his why and his compelling vision.
He was all in, which means he was completely committed to his cause. In the face of extreme opposition and major setbacks, he kept pushing forward with a fearless tenacity. He did this because he was committed to putting his beliefs into action. As he put it, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
7. Foster Collaboration
Many have noted how King had a way of getting people to stop fighting and start working together toward a common goal or vision.
In meetings he was often the quiet one. While others argued and debated, he would just listen, then clearly and calmly summarize what he had heard, and finally identify a path forward.
He was a master at identifying just enough common ground between opposing viewpoints to get people working together who might otherwise only ever fight each other.
Examine how your own leadership manifests itself in meetings and gatherings.
If you find yourself talking more than listening, then you’re not on the right track. Develop your active and deep listening skills with an eye towards bringing even the most unlikely of people together in a common cause.
Look for the common ground that unites people, and use that as a launching pad for collaboration. Why collaborate? MLK answered the question this way:
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
8. Emotional Self-Mastery
MLK was an angry man.
He was angry about the lack of progress towards equal rights for African Americans, and angry about poverty and economic inequality for anyone no matter what their race.
He could easily have let that anger get the best of him.
If he had done so, there can be no doubt he wouldn’t have made the huge strides he made in furthering the cause of civil rights.
During meetings to try and resolve the Montgomery bus boycott, it looked like there was going to be a stalemate.
King reflects on his own behavior during some of those meetings in his autobiography:
“I was weighed down by a terrible sense of guilt, remembering that on two or three occasions I had allowed myself to become angry and indignant. 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.’”
By constantly checking his anger, MLK mastered this most powerful of all emotions and channeled it into passionately showing why the status quo must be changed.
He channeled his anger into purpose, energy, and commitment.
Emotional self-mastery deserves a high spot on your leadership to-do list, especially when it comes to handling anger.
One mark of great leaders is their ability to not only constructively channel their own anger, but to model it for others so they too can channel it into energy and commitment.
As MLK said in Freedomways magazine in 1968:
“The supreme task [of a leader] is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.”
9. Take the Moral High Ground
There were many in the civil rights movement who wanted to take a much more direct, even violent, approach to achieving their ends.
MLK was resolute in his commitment to nonviolent means to reach his desired ends. The way this translates into organization life is this: Coercion is never the right way to reach your vision.
The “forced march” only creates resentment and backlash. That’s why it’s so important for you as a leader to clearly establish your compelling vision – it’s got to be so compelling that enough people want to follow it to make it a reality, even if there are still some who aren’t totally on board.
You might think I’m going to tell you how MLK was fearless, but you’d be wrong.
MLK was actually full of fear. He was downright scared before each and every major public appearance because he worried about how his ideas and speeches would be received.
He worried that in spite of his best intentions, violent protests could break out as a result of his efforts.
Fear is an emotion in the same way that anger is an emotion, which means you can master it, just like MLK did.
He faced his fears head on, acknowledged them, talked about them, owned them, and then went ahead and did his work in spite of the fear he felt. Like any emotion, it dissipates after its initial powerful force washes over you.
The key is what you do in the face of fear. The true definition of courage is acting in spite of your fear. If anything, you must learn to embrace your fear. Step into your fear in order to then move past it and do what needs to be done. MLK’s thoughts on fear are worth noting here:
“Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but, rather to harness and master it.”
11. Creative Tension
The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), the Albany Movement (1961), the Birmingham Campaign (1963), the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), Bloody Sunday (Selma to Montgomery marches, 1965), Chicago (1966), Beyond Vietnam speech (1967), Poor People’s Campaign (1968) – these are eight powerful and influential nonviolent, peaceful protests (some of which included civil disobedience) MLK had a major hand in.
He understood all too well how it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, so a major part of his leadership efforts were directed at mobilizing significantly “squeaky” events that the nation and its government simply couldn’t ignore.
He often referred to these strategies as embracing and generating creative tension, something he saw as necessary to make change happen. This has become a well-known idea in organizations now as well, where leaders embrace creative fiction in the form of involving a diversity of opinions in the decision-making process, similar to what Abraham Lincoln accomplished with his “team of rivals.”
How will your leadership make enough noise to not only be heard but taken seriously? MLK’s urgency on this point is well taken:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
12. Metaphor and Story
You can be as logical as you can be, and that may win you some minds, but you must win people’s hearts if you’re going to be the kind of great leader that inspires people to act, which is what MLK did.
As a continuation of the earlier point about powerful communication, one of the most important things you can do for your leadership is master the use of metaphors and storytelling to communicate both your dissatisfaction with the status quo and your compelling vision of the future.
Here’s a masterpiece example of the former from MLK’s I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington:
“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
While not everyone has the same finesse for poetic language that MLK did, storytelling (even at a very basic level) does have a way of transforming even the dull into something exciting – making it a very powerful way to capture the attention, intrigue and receptiveness of others.
13. Create a Sense of Urgency
You’ve probably read more than one theory of change (such as John Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change) that describe the importance of creating a sense of urgency around the needed change.
Learn from yet another brilliant example found in MLK’s famous speech:
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
Now imagine yourself as a leader giving a similar kind of impassioned call to action about your own compelling vision. That’s what it will take to be a great leader.
14. Inspire People to be the Best Versions of Themselves
In the same way that you’ve heeded your own call not to fall prey to violence or coercion to get to get to your compelling vision (because the end does not justify the means), you must also call your followers to embody their highest values and standards.
Just like Ghandi did before him and Nelson Mandela did after him, MLK called people to take the moral high ground in the pursuit of their vision.
As he put it in his I Have a Dream speech: “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Let your leadership be guided by such principals as honor and integrity.
15. Acknowledge (and Reward) Your Followers’ Good Work
MLK took the time to verbally acknowledge the sacrifices made by so many of his followers:
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”
In the organizational setting, there is no substitute for making sure your top performers and followers are robustly recognized and rewarded for their good work. It’s an essential aspect of being a great leader.
16. Superior Strategies
Great leadership is strategic. Think about the task that lay before MLK – trying to effect significant social change through marginalized people with limited education and little in the way of economic means.
How can a group that has been thoroughly disempowered ever hope to make a positive difference?
MLK knew from the start it would mean mobilizing the masses to demand change, and exercise their voting rights en masse. In strategizing how to bring about change, he had to think many steps ahead, anticipating the moves of his opponents, making the most of opportunities in just the right places, and always operating within a framework of high ethical standards to not give his opponents anything to use against them.
Each decision he made about the movement was well considered and weighed all the potential risks, downsides, and unintended consequences.
As MLK said, “We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” Substitute the word strategically for creatively in that quote and you have some pretty clear marching orders for great leadership.
MLK was a truly great leader. It’s also not coincidental that many of his quotes presented here come directly from his I Have a Dream speech. Many of the leadership must-haves above can be traced to various passages in the speech. It is a truly brilliant piece of inspired communication.
It’s less than 6 minutes, but is packed with examples of leadership and oratory skill. Make a point of studying it on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this to inspire your own leadership efforts to new heights.