Martin Luther King in Leadership

Scholars in the field leadership and strategic management support two common views about a leader. The first maintains that a leader is born and that leadership qualities are inherent in the person. The second theorizes that people eventually become leaders after undergoing a rigorous process of training that acquaints them with key leadership skills and behavioral inclinations to apply in specific situations. Early leadership theories were focused on the person rather than the qualities, but over time interest has shifted to variables affecting effective leadership such as skill levels and situational factors. This paper demonstrates how a key historical leader, Martin Luther King, abandoned one leadership paradigm for another to influence his followers. King’s shift from a lay leader to a frontrunner of the Civil Rights Movement compelled him to adopt a more charismatic, participative, and transformational leadership style.

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The Universalist school of thought deems King as an inborn leader. This notion is inspired by the trait theory which maintains that certain traits are necessary for one to become a leader. Sample traits include intelligence and action-oriented judgement, eagerness to accept responsibility, task competence, understanding the follower’s needs, people skills, need for achievement, perseverance, assertiveness, trustworthiness, courage, and resolution, among others. King demonstrated many of these traits in his achievements. Perhaps more than any other person of his era, King understood his follower’s needs (Ling, 2015). As an African-American man, he endured and even developed depression as a result of racial segregation. Hence, he had a common mindset with civil rights activists and followers. His resolution was exhibited through his strong determination to push for equality of races. His proven track record of accountability from high school through post-college years and devoted loyalty to the African American community created a trusted leader (Fishman, 2019).  Altogether, King’s leadership traits enabled him to exercise influence over his followers.

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            As much as King demonstrated key traits of leadership, he mastered many skills through his life experiences, especially those relating to his role as a leader. For instance, King became increasingly proficient in communicating his views at a young age (Garrow, 2015). He displayed public speaking skills as early as high school. He was known for his clever use of oratorical and rhetorical devices such as repetition and alliteration. King’s famed Letter from Birmingham Jail further exposed his willpower to use any mode of communication to achieve the end. The letter exposed clergy members who were undermining the civil rights movement by calling the delay of demonstrations. His persistence was evidently an indicator of his transformational style of leadership. Transformational leaders create a vision and guide change through aspiration while upholding loyalty to the objective regardless of challenges. The Letter from Birmingham jail cost King in many ways, among them the bombing of his home, yet, he urged his team and followers to press forward toward the goal.

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            Another key aspect of transformational leadership that King developed over time was the courage and determination to challenge the status quo. He began to challenge societal norms at a young age, partly because of his father’s ardent devotion to the civil rights movement. King continued to challenge existing state of injustice and segregation while advocating his case for democracy, brotherhood, and racial injustice. These actions demonstrated his will to motivate and collaborate with followers in raising the morality of the society, which is a critical trait of transformational leaders (Arnold, Connelly, Walsh, & Martin Ginis, 2015). According to Burns, transformational leaders use a strong vision and personality to inspire followers towards success.

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            Other behavioral inclinations that make King a transformational leader include his ability to motivate followers; follow and execute moral standards; foster an ethical environment with priorities and standards; encourage followers to shift from an attitude of self-interest to interest in common good; emphasize authenticity and cooperation; and provide mentoring and coaching so that followers can make their own choices autonomously.  Among the most behavior that connect King’s leadership style with the element of transformation is his aspiration to evolve the minds the minds of values, beliefs, and attitudes of the followers (Riggio, 2017). By providing a vision of where civil rights activists were going and developing a culture that stimulates desired activities, such as peaceful protests and demonstrations, King inspired his followers. He also took time to empathize and connect with his followers. In rallies, King mentioned major challenges that the citizens were facing and encouraged them to keep up the fight. As a Christian leader, he had practiced and mastered the art of preaching ideas to populations that were willing to act with violence against those who showed violence (Reddick, 2018). Such ideals were communicated in his rallies and many speaking events King attended. King is seen as responsible for producing performance beyond ordinary expectations for his perseverance in the time of adversity. He transmitted the mission beyond the barrier of a jail cell, stimulated people’s learning experiences, and inspired new ways of doing things. Above all, he played the role model.

            One main reason why King adopted a transformational leadership framework instead of the then dominant autocratic style is the former’s knack to produce real and tangible results. Research shows that transformational leadership stimulates revolution and performance for the leader and followers (Riggio, 2017). This is particularly evident in the manner in which King’s style uplifted him and other participants of the civil rights movement towards a shared goal. King’s leadership style was the complete opposite of transactional style of leadership which involves the use of incentives and punishment in motivating followers.

            The contingency aspect of leadership is apparent in the way King cultivated and eventually matched his leadership style to situational characteristics. For instance, he developed empathy by undergoing the experiences that his followers were undergoing. To be the champion of people’s rights, he had to have a vivid understanding of the circumstances they faced and the challenges they endured. Hence, he spent time interacting with those he represented. Some interactions were achieved through official meetings while others were impromptu (Garrow, 2015). His efforts of identifying with his followers went beyond the “normal” degree. The relationship and interaction between King and his followers eventually matured into a proper match. This is consistent with all three contingency leadership theories. Indeed, outlooks of the Fielder, decision-making, and leader-member contingency theories were well illustrated by King. With regard to Fielder’s model, King’s behavioral style matched well with the degree to which the situation provided control. Fielder maintains that leaders are concerned with group relations; King closely monitored views and feelings of his cohorts (Riggio, 2017). With time, he adopted a more relationship-oriented attitude pf leadership. Leader-member relations are particularly important when it comes to leading a group of people as success depends on how the followers relate to their leader (Riggio, 2017). Although King had no significant position power, he used his charisma to grab the attention of like-minded citizens and authorities at large. Kings leadership shares a connection with the path-gal and decision-making theories in that he helped followers to attain desired goals and made revolutionary decisions, such as defying government orders to organize demonstrations.

            King is among the most renowned leaders in history that possessed charisma. He was an exceptional leader who appealed and identified with the plight of his followers (Taylor, 2016). Like other charismatic leaders, King validated his ability to communicate shared group goals while conveying confidence in his own abilities as well as those of his followers. The charismatic leadership theory maintains that leaders are more effective in situations where goals are not clear and where the conditions are unstable, precisely because they are capable of providing the vision of where the team should be headed (Nawaz & Khan, 2016). With exceptional social skills and the ability to connect with followers on an emotional level, King manifestly revealed his power as a charismatic leader. He possessed key characteristics of charismatic leaders, such as the ability to inspire, sensitivity to followers, and the desire to alter the status quo.     

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In sum, King’s position in the Civil Rights Movement compelled him to adopt a more charismatic, participative, and transformational leadership style. He moved away from the level of autocracy that dominated organizations at the time. Autocratic systems of leadership value the leader’s input, but may fail to value the follower’s voice at all. An autocratic leadership style would have proven unsuitable to King’s circumstance as he would never had connected with his followers as he did. Additionally, the decisions he would have made would never had harmonized completely, if at all, with those of his followers. Today, the workplace is adopting King’s leadership style by encouraging collaboration between the leader and employees. King also illustrated flexibility in his endeavors. While he manifested key leadership traits, it is his accommodating attitude that led to his success in managing a large group in an unstable environment.

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On the whole, King espoused participative, transformational, and charismatic leadership styles. He combined them in different situations to account for varying team qualities. In the modern business environment, leaders are becoming more aware of their employees’ personalities and emotional needs. Hence, they are becoming better at reacting to different contexts in in unique ways. A shift from autocracy towards participation and transformation is not only inspiring direction by creativity instead of rigidity but also allowing followers to become more independent and motivated. However, leaders are obliged to remain available always to help their team where need arises. In future, leadership may continue to evolve, especially with the current influence of technology on organizations and management.

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