Early theories of leadership ranged from Thomas Carlyle’s view that great men determine the course of history to Vilfredo Pareto’s concept that different kinds of societal situations allow certain types of persons to become leaders. During the early development of leadership concepts, the three most prominent classification categories of leaders were elected or appointed leaders, emergent leaders and charismatic leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. epitomized each of those leader types.
In 1954, at the age of 25, King accepted an offer from the pulpit selection committee of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, to become the church’s pastor. Shortly afterward, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery bus and leave her front row seat vacant for a white passenger. She was arrested and that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott by black people. Because of his forceful church sermons about the evils of racial oppression and his eloquence as a public speaker, King was asked by the organizers of the boycott to be their leader. His public speech at the rally was militant enough to arouse the blacks in attendance but moderate enough to keep them focused on nonviolent actions. He was the right person at the right time to assume that leadership role.
Two years later, in 1957, King convened what he called the first Negro Leaders Conference on Nonviolent Integration to discuss ways to fight racial segregation and discrimination more effectively throughout the South. Sixty preachers from the South and a young community organizer named Bayard Rustin attended the conference. The participants formed an organization that, after several name changes, became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King was elected the president.
He believed that unarmed truth and unconditional love of one’s adversaries would ultimately triumph over racial violence and bigotry.
King’s warm, compelling and forceful personality gave him a mystical presence. This charismatic quality extended beyond him being a highly educated person, an accomplished orator, an insightful writer and an emerging community activist. Indeed, his persona allowed him to do some extraordinary things as a leader. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1860) wrote: “There are men who, by their sympathetic attractions, carry nations with them, and lead the activity of the human race.” Martin Luther King Jr. became one of those men. He unquestionably fit Emerson’s and Carlyle’s notions of a great man.
King’s leadership characteristics can be subsumed into two general categories. Within the first category are those qualities required of people who operate from a moral or ethical orientation. King’s commitment to nonviolence was an unapologetically humane approach to societal changes. He believed that unarmed truth and unconditional love of one’s adversaries would ultimately triumph over racial violence and bigotry. Drawing strength from the teachings of Jesus and Mohandas K. Gandhi and the writings of Henry David Thoreau, King was able to transcend the bitterness that accrued to him as a victim of race hate crimes.
The second aspect of King’s leadership characteristics were those qualities that allowed him to empower other people to deal effectively with interpersonal and intergroup conflicts within and outside their own organizations. He encouraged and helped his followers to devise their own strategies and tactics to resolve local community conflicts. Simply put, he did not micromanage his subordinates or his followers. Thus, he was both an effective leader and loyal follower. It could be theorized that it makes little difference what personality traits leaders possess if their followers have faith in them and they, in turn, are empowered to do their best work.
If most of King’s civil rights tactics and strategies had been ill conceived, he would have been a failed leader. Fortunately, most of his tactics and strategies were well conceived. As a leader, Martin Luther King Jr. harnessed the synergy and motivation of masses of black people and their allies for national nonviolent activities that positively transformed the United States. Within that context, he became one of America’s most renowned leaders.