Dr. Martin L. King (1929-1969) stood as one of America’s most influential leaders in the twenty-century. Dr. King’s contributions toward the recognition of African Americans as human beings and participating citizens in the United States, represented a critical turning point in the history of the United States. Dr. King represented a strong example of an organizational leader who effectively communicates vision, supports that vision with intellectual depth, and implements self-critique in order to benefit those around him.
Transformational leadership consists of four behavioral categories; idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Bass, Avolio, & Atwater; 1996; Sun & Anderson, 2012; Yukl, 2013). Idealized influence represents a behavioral manifestation in which the leader’s behavior galvanizes a group of persons to achieve a particular vision through selfless acts, integrity of values and actions, and willingness to share in the difficulties. Bass, Avolio, and Atwater (1996) state inspirational motivation represents a leadership behavior in which a level of “meaning and optimism” which serves to press followership forward (p.10). The behavior energizes the skills of the group surrounding the transformational leader to accomplish a vision through “symbols to focus subordinate effort” (Yukl, 2013; p. 322). Transformational leaders communicate to followers and the larger context; language, concepts, and words to engage the intellect. A transformational leader illuminates the apparent inconsistencies in the given culture and applies an intricate level of thought, arguments, and persuasion to mobilize followership. The final behavior involves individualized behavior which manifests as development for future leaders. The individualized behavior works towards reformation of a people to arrive at a higher ethical behavior which has implications for the greater society.
The Transformational Leadership of King
Dr. Martin L. King Jr. lived as a transformational leader who demonstrated leadership behavior which mobilized diverse persons by a compelling vision; communicated a stimulating and diverse nonviolent philosophy; and conducted himself with a high level of emotional strength to lead the Civil Rights Movement and eliminate racial inequality. In 1956, Dr. King becomes a leader in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, followed by the cafeteria sit-ins of the 1960’s (Garrow, 1987). Dr. King’s signature moment is the “I Have a Dream” speech that he communicates in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963 within the larger context of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Godwin et al). Farris (2009) identifies how the sixties cannot be properly understood apart from the influence of Dr. Martin L. King and his work in the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s behavior and actions offered one of America’s strongest demonstrations of transformational leadership which extended beyond the African American context and affected all aspects of the American human experience.
Dr. Martin L. King offered what could be described as “communicating an appealing vision, and uses symbols to focus subordinate effort” (Yukl, 2013; p.322). Dr. Martin L. King operated in what Brueggemann (2001) termed the “prophetic imagination.” The prophetic imagination involves the speaker in the living process of vision execution working for the realization of that compelling vision through “criticizing and energizing” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 4).
The second aspect of communicating vision involves the usage of symbols to communicate the vision and focus efforts. Dr. Martin L. King’s ability to invoke a strong vision combined with words of visual imagery owed its genesis to the Black Church.
The symbols and descriptions Dr. King commonly evoked originated from the Bible such as, “let justice roll down like water” or governmental documents such as the Declaration of Independence which Dr. King stated was the “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” These symbols worked to critique the existing situation and compelled listeners to see in some measure what the transformational leader desired to see as a reality.
The ability to influence extends beyond persons and includes the influence of events, contexts, or extends from a larger group. Dr. Martin L. King Jr’s appropriate use of power and influence created the opportunity to communicate intellectual stimulation which consists of Scripture, Gandhian philosophy, and human concern which compels groups and government towards a more just society. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. executed his will through the use of cogent, Biblical arguments on the larger stage of public speaking and his personal participation in nonviolent civil disobedience which represents the application of his philosophical approach.
Second, Dr. King implemented power in the form of conflict resolution. Dr. King’s involvement with the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and the bus boycotts represented an opportunity for Dr. King and his Southern White counterparts to engage in discussions to achieve larger goals.
The third manner in which Dr. King used in the implementation of power manifested in the large pockets of the Civil Rights Movement which acknowledged Dr. King as the leader of the movement. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. demonstrated through the appropriate use of power and moral authority, both shaped by Christian philosophy and Gandhian methodology to offer intellectual stimulation among many followers, the South, and the larger nation.
Emotional Stability and Maturity
Dr. Martin L. King Jr. crafted an approach of nonviolent civil disobedience, which compelled followers to illuminate the issues of segregation and to rescue the soul of the oppressor. This behavior is emotional stability and maturity. According to Dr. Martin L. King, he wrestled with fear and anxiety at the beginnings of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King (1967) illustrated in some two years prior to his assassination his emotional stability found solace in God speaking the words to encourage Dr. King to stand for righteousness and truth with the certainty of God’s presence. Garrow (1987) comments, “the vision in the kitchen allowed King to go forward with feelings of companionship of self-assurance, and of mission that were vastly greater spiritual resources” (p.442). Dr. Martin L. King’s experience reminds the reader of Jesus emotional experience prior to the crucifixion (Matthew 26:36-46, English Standard Version). While Dr. King’s experience of emotional instability is qualitatively different than that of Jesus Christ, the experiences both contain the subjects under duress because of the situation and the responding encouragement of God.
Therefore, transformational leaders have a level of self-awareness about themselves which compels him or her to pursue personal care before proceeding to lead others to care for others. Dr. Martin L. King approach to nonviolent civil disobedience requires an emotional stability and maturity that demonstrates a care for other people.
Dr. Martin L. King Jr. represented himself as a transformational leader who demonstrated leadership behavior which mobilized diverse persons by a compelling vision; communicated a stimulating and diverse nonviolent philosophy; and conducted himself with a high level of emotional strength to lead the Civil Rights Movement and eliminate racial inequality.
Organizational leaders in diverse contexts possess the opportunity to communicate a vision that critiques the current situation which leads to the energizing of a group of people to draw the compelling vision into reality. Additionally, leaders have the responsibility to develop themselves and those around them in a manner that elevates intellectual capacity and emotional stability for the good of humanity.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin L. King’s death. January 15, 2018 our nation celebrates the birth of Reverend Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Dr. King’s life and legacy is one of the examined life in which he determined to use his faith, intellect, and compelling vision for human equality to improve the lives of Americans. He possessed a clear vision of where he wanted to go and his example called others to follow him towards a beloved community.
I use the terminology “human equality” because we tend to isolate Dr. King’s work to the pursuit of racial equality in voting rights, equal access to solicit businesses, and bus desegregation. Yet Dr. King’s work extends beyond the visionary speech of “I Have a Dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Dr. King’s intense vision for the realization and affirmation of human personality among poor Americans, a difficult stand against the Vietnam War, and improved economic situations are critical to understanding his life and legacy. We will be well served to remember Dr. King was not simply an advocate for the uplift of Blacks during the 1950’s and 1960’ but a fervent and prophetic voice to call people to a glorious destination.
It is a difficult thing to be a voice for all persons. In the 21st Century we are drawn into so many directions. A comfortable influence is our desire to be a voice for those who resemble, think, and most recently vote like us. Homogeneity offers a level of protection, security, and identity. It is when the “other” enters our presence, our intellectual assent to advance freedom and dignity for “We the People” encounters profound challenge. When the “other” breaks into our life as a ray of light on our sleeping faces, we are startled from our slumber and have an opportunity to engage in a new morning.
We stand in a morning where we still hear voices of resistance regarding national leadership. We wake up to voices of mothers and brothers who are tired of violence perpetuated in their streets, whether by gang members or law enforcement. We are aware of the tired feet of people who partake a dangerous journey to our Southern border led as hopeful sojourners by manipulative coyotes. The morning light has made us aware of all types of persons who vacillate between hope and fear, comfort and anxiety, solidarity and isolation. As Dr. King asked in 1968, “Where do we go from here?”
This question asked fifty years ago, immediately evaluated the situation of the Civil Rights Movement. His leadership along with a diverse ethnic and religious following was influential in securing the desegregation of buses, passage of the Voting Rights Act, and challenging the validity of the Vietnam War. Dr. King realized people-particularly Blacks-continued to suffer economically within their own neighborhoods, despite significant victories. Where do we go from here? Dr. King proposed the movement needed to engage its government and citizens to embrace the reality of a “world house.” Embedded in the question though is the concept of solidarity.
We are a family. We have a variety of ethnicities, religious faiths, and other social distinctions. Just as a family possesses diversity, a loving and compassionate family manages such diversity for the larger goal of generational viability. Regardless of our social or economic position, we exist as a family within this vast house called Arkansas. This is our house and we have an individual and collective responsibility to steward this residence for ourselves and future generations.
Where do we go from here? Embedded in the question is one of action. Dr. King perceived the success of the Civil Rights Movement depended on Blacks serving in greater political, economic, and social influence. In the 21st Century we must ask ourselves, “How will we serve others?” I believe there are many of you who possess great ideas to transform Libertarian, Conservative, and Progressive ideologies. There are men, women, and children in our nation who need bold political ideas which will shape our house to function appropriately in this new morning. Poverty continues to be an unsightly hole in the roof of our house. This economic situation creates an opportunity in which more and more families are discovering their power to make meaningful choices is being severely hindered. Dr. King stated, “if democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity.” It is time we stand in the warmth of our new morning and create new opportunities to improve the economic situation of the disadvantaged. To do otherwise compromises the longevity of our state.
Finally, we can serve others in the 21st Century by compassionately engaging socially with others. Our state has some relational tensions to address. These tensions possess an ethnic character and in other cases a political character. While I cannot control how one is born ethnically or how one believes politically, I can control how I perceive the other person. You are my brother and sister. We are tied together by the same infinitely valuable character which offers us all dignity and worth. I have my faults as you have your own. Dr. King stated, “there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” Therefore, let us serve our “enemies.” We need to walk into this new morning with an intense desire to love the other with such a fervency that heaven itself will stand and applaud.
Service in the 21st Century depends on a compelling and prophetic vision which empowers each of us to love through political, economic, and social means. We love one another through each of these means for the greater purpose of maintaining our house and above all creating a situation in which all human beings can dance in the morning light of freedom and equality.
This is where we can be headed.