Leadership throughout history has taken on many faces and many forms yet, whether the leader was considered good or evil, the skills and styles required of a leader have not changed.
Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner state that “The work of leaders is change. To them the status quo is unacceptable. Leaders search for opportunities by seeking innovative ways to change, grow, and improve. They seize the initiative to make things happen. And knowing they have no monopoly on good ideas, leaders constantly scan the outside environment for creative ways to do new things.” (Kouzes & Posner, 2004)There are five practices of leadership that when practiced and mastered correctly, they are effective and valuable skills that can encourage and influence across social status, intellectual achievements for generations. The five characteristics of leadership are model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart (Kouzes & Posner, 2004).
In considering Kouzes and Posner’s interpretation of what is the work of a leader, I consider the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to correspond to that interpretation fully.
However, rather than him learning how to master the skills outlined in the Kouzes and Posner text, I believe that Dr. King was born with leadership skills.Martin Luther King, Jr., whose actual birth name was Michael King, later would adopt the name Martin Luther honoring the memory of the German Protestant leader Martin Luther was born January 15, 1929.
He was born in rural Atlanta, Georgia, to Michael King, Sr. the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church who ruled the home with a stern hand and Alberta Williams, a gentle and composed woman who brought balance to the strict rules of his father.His birth came just as the United States was on the threshold of the disastrous Great Depression. Martin, Sr., stressed the importance of education for his children and Martin, Jr. attended and excelled in the public elementary and high school system, and through his hard work Martin, Jr.
, was accepted to Morehouse College at the age of 15 from which he graduated in 1948 with a degree in Sociology. Although he had grown up as the son of a pastor, Martin, Jr., questioned religion and felt uncomfortable with the emotional displays of religious worship he had witnessed.
As a result, Martin, Jr., had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps into ministry, but influenced by a Bible class taken in his junior year at Morehouse. With his faith renewed, he continued his pursuit of knowledge at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania where he was selected as an outstanding student, elected student body president and ultimately became valedictorian of his graduating class in 1951.
Dr. King then went on to complete his graduate studies at Boston University, where in 1955 he received a Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology.While studying in Crozer, Dr. King’s attention was drawn to the works of the Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr and his book The Nature and Destiny of Man. About which Dr. King commented, “Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glowing reality of collective evil” (Blakely, 2001). Dr.
King found inspiration in many philosophers that included Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke. But one of the more influential voices that shaped Dr. King was that of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and his philosophy of “truth is the whole” (Gertz, 2015). Hegel’s philosophy fascinated King and brings to my recollection the words Frederick Douglas stated in his West India Emancipation speech “If there is no struggle, there is no progress” (Douglas, F.) Understanding this idea would later prove to be a credo that would be supported and energizing to many radical and revolutionary thinkers of modern times.With the tools Dr.
King had gathered and having graduated from Crozer and becoming the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he was confronted with the arrest of Rosa Parks who had been arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat for a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Upon hearing of the blatant segregation practices in Alabama, Dr. King initiated the bus boycott and began his quest for the acknowledgment and ratification of civil rights of black America. He reluctantly accepted the position as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which made him the official spokesman for the boycott. Dr. King’s leadership of the boycott, along with the cooperation of the citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, compelled a 1956 Supreme Court decision ruling that deemed segregation on the bus was illegal. Thus marked King’s first victory as leader of the Civil Rights movement and the birth of the Civil Rights movement and the sharing of Dr.
Martin Luther King’s vision that non-violent civil disobedience will effectually create social and political change.As a result of Dr. King’s participation in the boycott, he was arrested and sent to jail in Birmingham, where he wrote a letter to his fellow clergymen in response to the criticisms of the campaign. In the letter Dr. King “justified the tactic of civil disobedience by stating that, just as the Bible’s Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s unjust laws and colonists staged the Boston Tea Party, he refused to submit to laws and injunctions that were used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest” (Luther King, Jr.
, 1963)According to some, leadership is a learned trait that has to be nurtured and honed through experience and mentoring. Now, while I agree that the characteristics of remarkable leadership are learned traits, I also believe there are elements of leadership that are intrinsic and organic to a person from birth. Kouzes and Posner provide an incisive definition of what or who a leader is and what a leader should aspire to, in the statement “Leaders envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities. A vision is a mental picture of what tomorrow could be like. It expresses our highest standards and values. It sets us apart and makes us feel special. It spans years of time and keeps is focused on the future.
A vision gives focus to humans energy. And if it’s to be attractive to more than an insignificant few, it must appeal to all who have a stake in it.” (Kouzes & Posner, 2004. Pg. 17)The five exemplary practices of leadership illustrate that as a leader there is a certain level of confidence and determination that you have to internally possess that will serve as an example for others to follow. The five leadership practices outlined by Kouzes and Posner challenge the process, inspire a shared vision, enable others to act, model the way, and encourage the heart were foundational to the leadership style of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Another great humanitarian that influenced Dr. King was Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi was considered by Dr.
King as ”the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change” (India Trip 1959). Upon his return to America, Dr. King stated in an address to the people of India, “I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity” (Luther King, Jr., 1959).
During Dr. King’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement, he challenged segregation which had been the process by which black Americans, some of them with limited education and economic resources, had endured since the abolition of slavery. He realized that they would only have a voice and say about the manner in which they lived when they were granted voting rights equal to their white counterparts.
Dr. King, headed up the Voter Education Project that “coordinated the voter registration campaigns of ?ve civil rights groups—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the National Urban League—under the auspices of the Southern Regional Council (SRC), a non-pro?t research organization” (“Voter Education Project”, 1995). By 1964 donations and grants had totaled close to $900,000, and almost 800,000 new black voters had been added to the voter registry.
Aside from being an unparalleled orator, Dr. King was humble and modest. He was aware of the fact that for so long the black community, especially in the South, had suffered at the hands of the police department and the justice system. He also realized that although the civil rights movement would be a difficult undertaking that he still encouraged his followers, in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive” (“I HAVE A DREAM .
..”, 1963). He also shared what his vision for a truly united America looked like as well as motivated, inspired and encouraged all who were in attendance to hear his speech. The passage, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.
We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.
They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone” (“I HAVE A DREAM …
“, 1963) is the quintessential call to all of his followers to uphold themselves in virtue and good character regardless of having the right to be angry and violent.Martin Luther King, Jr., aside from the political aspect, was a philosopher and a master strategist. He was a leader who refused to compromise or be swayed by the challenges he faced daily, even up to his assassination, was yet willing to risk everything he had to fulfill the vision and reach the lofty goals of equality for black citizens of America.Even though Dr. King, who was jailed 29 times during the Birmingham campaign alone (Klein, 2013) and his leadership team encountered continuous obstacles and misfortunes as they went forward to right a multigeneration wrong committed against a whole race of people, fifty-four years after his speech and 49 years after his assassination the influence of his leadership style and his ability to still motivate and mobilize people is ever present. He was undoubtedly challenged the process, was able to model the way, inspire a shared vision, encourage the heart and enable others to act and who s still one of life’s leaders and mentors.
His speeches awakened the desire in others to pursue their visions and aspirations while encouraging them to know that while there may be a struggle nothing is impossible or beyond reach.Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was most assuredly a man whose style of leadership was far ahead of his generation but with the influence of vanguard thinkers like Gandhi, Niebuhr, and Hegel, he demonstrated that “leaders stand for something, believe in something, and care about something” (Kouzes and Posner, 2004. Pg. 39)So while many say that leaders are not born but are made or “challenge the myth that leadership is something inherent in the DNA” (Kouzes and Posner, 2004. Pg.
2) I reiterate my belief that some people are natural leaders born with the skills and capabilities to bring out the very best qualities and abilities of those who follow them. Dr. King, throughout his life overcame circumstances that would render some leaders ineffective or incapacitated.
Dr. King has left a legacy of accomplishments along with his ever enduring presence as a leader of a generation. A true mark of a leader is when their contributions to society “are not to today’s bottom line but to the long-term development of people and institutions that adapt, prosper and grow” (Kouzes and Posner, 2004. Pg.