Martin Luther King’s Leadership Style Essay

“Leadership is an influence process that assists groups of individuals toward goal attainment” (Peter G. Northouse, 2010). According to the definition in order to accomplish this “process” group of individuals (followers) have to be influenced by an individual (leader) who should motivate, inspire, guide and direct group members towards mutual goal. This is exactly what Sir Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing and what had made him one of the world’s most inspirational leaders.

A real role model of a successful leader had been attracting public interest for years and his characters, traits and skills are still inspirational for many of the modern day leaders and for ones interested in this filed. One of the main qualities of King’s as a leader was probably that, he always made it sure, that his followers were aware “why they do what they do”. Before discussing Dr. King’s leadership nature in more details, let’s have a brief look of his biography, which had shaped him as a successful person as well as a leader.

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Biography Martin Luther King, Jr. was a clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia (US). He graduated from segregated high school in Georgia, at the age of fifteen. He received the B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College in Atlanta. After that he continued his study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was elected as a president of a senior class dominated by white students and where he got his B.

D. degree in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled at Boston University and received doctorate degree in 1955. In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott and he got two sons and two daughters from her. In 1954, Martin Luther King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. By this time he was already actively involved in civil rights activities and was a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – an African-American civil rights organization. Apart from struggling for civil rights, King had expanded his focus on poverty and the Vietnam War during last years of his life. Besides his campaigns, he acted as a co-pastor until his death. Between 1957 and 1968, King spoke over 25 hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action, meanwhile he wrote 5 books and numerous articles. On April 4, 1968, at the age of 39 he was assassinated. Achievements

Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for his role in improving civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience. King became a civil rights activist early in his career. In 1955, he held the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration in the United States, the “Montgomery Bus Boycott”. The boycott lasted 382 days and on December 21, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States had declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses, which allowed Negroes and whites to take the busses on equal basis. This was the demonstration King first emerged as a Negro leader.

In 1963 King led a massive protest campaign “The Great March on Washington” for Jobs and freedom that caught the attention of the entire world. He directed the peaceful march of 250,000 people on Washington, D. C. Here he delivered his famous speech “l Have a Dream”, which is considered to be the “masterpiece of rhetoric” and which is the best illustration of King’s leadership qualities At the age of 35, Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the youngest man who had ever received this award. He used the prize money of $54,123 to support further the civil rights movement.

Apart from that, King was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963. He was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U. S. federal holiday in 1986 and is celebrated around the time of King’s birthday, January 15. King was not only fighting against racial discrimination, but he had a dream to change the perception of society at large. In his campaign “The Great March on Washington” he mostly focused on education, fair wages and open access, which would benefit all of the society.

King showed his most heroic leadership during his campaign “Beyond Vietnam”, when he managed to withdraw US army from Vietnam. During that time king suggested that he could personally stop bombing by going to Vietnam and “acting as a human shield. ” He also challenged US president and demanded massive redistribution of wealth and power. For king leadership meant standing up for what he believed in and being “a drum major for justice” and even though he was arrested up to twenty times and assaulted several times, he was always standing next to his dreams.

It took bravery and courage from King to stay loyal of his believes, which had eventually turned him into not only symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure. All above mentioned facts prove that King was indeed inspirational and strong person and a real role model of a leader. One of the most appealing characters of King for me is that he was fighting for improvements in its community, nation and the world at large and he did it in totally peaceful way. In this way he was always committed to his believes.

This is exactly why Martin Luther King became my ideal and why I have decided to write about him in my essay. King had amazing leadership qualities (discussed below) that you, me, everyone can take advantage in our daily lives and in our way towards success. Leadership characteristics Martin Luther King’s leadership nature captures worldwide interest. One of his most famous speeches “I have a dream” – a masterpiece of rhetoric, is widely studied by aspiring leaders today to see how memorable words can inspire significant change.

Sir Martin Luther King was indeed inspirational speaker and one can say that his leadership was rooted in his oratory. However, King was much more than just good speaker and below you can find some of his key qualities which formed him as a leader. * Be a good listener: King’s leadership was not confined only to his fine speeches. In private meetings, King was quiet in general. He listened while others argue and then he calmly summed up the debate and identified possible solutions. * Make people work together: King had a remarkable ability to get people, who would otherwise be constantly arguing, to work together.

When King decided to focus on Vietnam, some of his supports and co-protesters were against his decision and there was a risk that people would split into two parts. However, King persuaded everyone in the importance of his decision and reunited his followers around this new goal. * Get involved: King made everyone to take part. He assumed that the responsibility “to make America a truly great nation falls on all Americans, not just black ones”. In 1963, King managed to unite 250,000 people around one will.

He managed to do this by actively engaging them in the process and persuading that they were action takers and they should themselves fight for their rights. That was the first such massive peaceful march that America had ever seen before. * Be a transformer: Martin Luther King, Jr. was a transformational leader. He managed to change totally perception of American population (and not only) and their attitude towards black people. * Be a visionary and follow that vision: At that time when African Americans had to sit on designated seats on the bus, King dreamt about equality.

Many people, even the King supporters, considered this idea very absurd and were suspicious that black and white people could ever take seats on equal basis. However, King never gave up; he took the new campaign “Bus Boycott”, won this fight and proved everyone the opposite. * Be an effective communicator: leaders have to be persuasive communicators and should excite and inspire followers. Even today when you listen to Martin Luther King’s speeches, they motivate you to “Stop complaining and do something productive. ” * Be nspired and inspire followers towards new directions: Good leader is who has the ability to be inspired and also inspire its followers. Martin Luther King was indeed amongst the world’s most inspirational leaders, who always insisted the following: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward. ”

* Be committed towards your believes: Besides death threats, arrests and assaults, King always stayed committed to his dreams and had continued to fight for his believes till the end of his life, until he got assassinated. Think positively and motivate followers to do the same: Even in the hardest times, when everything seemed to be lost, King had never given up and never allowed his followers to give up. He was always encouraging and making his followers to think positively about the future and not to lose the will for fight. The best illustration of this kind of positive attitude is “Bus Boycott”, when demonstration lasted more than a year (382 days) before seeing the results, but King’s supporters had never lost the hope of success.

Be determined and communicate clearly the objectives to the followers: King was always very determined; he knew exactly what he was doing and anticipated the results each action would have. Meanwhile, he always made it sure that his supporters knew “why they do what they do”. The list above sums up some of the key qualities of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a leader. His leadership goes far beyond this short list though. Some other basic traits that King possessed as a leader include charisma (he was one of the most charismatic leaders in the world), confidence, sincerity, courage, honesty, compassion, sensitivity, sincerity, passion, etc.

It has to be mentioned that King’s traits as a leader were highly influenced by his religious beliefs and backgrounds. His actions were taken not only from the ordinary activist’s but from the clergyman’s point of view as well, which made him extremely humane oriented. This explains the fact that he was quite sympathetic towards his followers and was always taking into consideration their opinions. Another Interesting fact about King is that when he died the non-violent movement was unable to continue without him. This is another proof that he indeed played a huge and essential role as a leader of the movements.

King’s nature of leadership through different leadership theories As discussed above Martin Luther King, Jr. had unique qualities of a leader and it is interesting to discuss them in accordance of different leadership theories. Below, I will try to draw some connections among the King’s qualities and leadership approaches (trait, skills and style) that we have learned. Trait Approach While studying the trait approach 5 major leadership traits have been identified: * Intelligence * Self-confidence * Determination * Integrity * Sociability

If we compare those traits to the ones of Sir Martin Luther King’s (discussed in the topic “Leadership characteristics”) we can conclude that King had all of these major traits: He was intellectual person who had strong verbal, perceptual and reasoning abilities. At the same time he was quite self-confident and determined, quite sure in his competences and capabilities and striving to reach his goals, besides lots of obstacles. He was extremely honest person and his followers trusted and believed in him a lot. King had friendly attitude towards his followers and he simply couldn’t achieve the success if not his social skills and openness.

Another perspective of this approach is “Big Five Personality Factor” (extraversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism) which plays important role in forming person as a leader and here as well Martin Luther King’s personality totally complies with the trends of those factors according to which extraversion is highly valuable for leaders. To sum up, traits generalized in “trait approach” indeed characterize leaders, however as discussed in the theory as well, this approach is not all-inclusive and leadership qualities go far beyond than just above mentioned traits.

Skills Approach One of the used practices in this perspective is three-skill approach that outlines 3 basic skills (katz, 1955) the leaders possess. * Technical skills * Human skills * Conceptual skills Different skills are needed and required at different levels of management. While technical skills are more useful for lower level management, conceptual and human skills are especially essential for high level leaders. Human and Technical skills are equally important for middle level management. Martin Luther King, Jr. ad very well developed conceptual and human skills, which helped him a lot to be sociable person and to achieve the success. His religious background could have also played a role to build up favorable human skills. The valuable experience, on the other hand, that he had gained over his life improved highly his conceptual skills. In a word, on King’s example we can generalize that leadership skills can be thought and acquired over the time. Style Approach One of the interesting models of this approach identifies two types of leadership behaviors: employee orientation and production orientation (Bowers ; Seashore, 1966).

While employee oriented leaders value more human relations and try to always stay in good relationship with employees, production orientated leaders focus more on technical and production aspects of a job. I assume that Martin Luther King, Jr. in most of his campaigns and life in general, valued and took advantage of both orientations. In case of King’s leadership style human needs and needs of his “work” were actually intertwined. He was fighting for welfare of people, so his “work” was to defend and benefit his followers, which makes this perspective quite interesting.

If we judge according to The Leadership Grid (Blake ; Mouton, 1964, 1978, 1985), I assume that King’s style of leadership would be assigned as a Team Management (9, 9) with high concern for people as well as for results. Apart from the King’s nature of leadership it is interesting to discuss his leadership form. There are two main forms of leadership: assigned and emergent. Assigned leadership is based on formal title or position in the organization, while emergent results from what one does and how it requires support from the followers.

As in case of style, it is also difficult to distinguish exactly what was the King’s leadership form. However, if we have a look of King’s biography we can conclude that he possessed both forms. He was officially elected president and a head of several civil rights organizations, as well as a pastor and these positions gave him an assigned leadership. On the other hand he was inspirational and admired person, highly respected and trusted by his followers, which obviously made him as an emergent leader. This leads me to the conclusion that Martin Luther King, Jr. s one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. He was real transformational leader who was fighting for justice in the world and who managed to change human perception. Even after 44 years from his death practitioners and researchers all over the world study his speeches to uncover the secrets leadership nature. However, it’s impossible to discuss King’s philosophy and achievements in 10 or even hundred pages and this, once again. proves that leadership is very complex. No approach is comprehensive enough to describe this topic exhaustively and provide a blueprint how to become a good leader.

However, studying different approaches is valuable tool to deepen our understanding of this field and acquire as much knowledge as possible, which will eventually assist us to become successful leaders.


Peter G. Northouse; Leadership Theory and Practice; / Fifth edition (2010) Michael Hyatt; Eight Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr. / International Leadership (2010) Peter J Ling; Martin Luther King’s Style of Leadership (2003) Priya Ramesh; Five Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr. (2012) Rosabeth Moss Kanter; Leadership and Martin Luther King’s Dream (2010)