From Montgomery to Memphis: Lessons on Leadership from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


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From Montgomery to Memphis: Lessons on Leadership from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. 1. © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 1 of 5 From Montgomery to Memphis: Lessons on Leadership from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA (661) 513-3370 Abstract From humble beginnings, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a nation – and the world – out of the chains of societal slavery. How did he achieve such lasting results? Leadership is a skill few individuals master. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of those individuals. This paper explores King’s success and presents a framework in which anyone can learn to become a great leader. I. Memphis and the Mountaintop On April 3, 1968 – one day before he was killed – the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers. King’s presence in Memphis was significant because he had experienced a major failure there just a few weeks earlier. During a planned nonviolent march, a local gang incited the crowd to commit acts of destruction, vandalism and theft. When hostilities subsided, more than 100 downtown stores were damaged, 60 people were injured and one black teenager had been killed by police gunfire. The governor of Tennessee called in the National Guard and imposed a curfew on the town (Phillips, 1998). King was determined to lead the march again. As was the case in 1962 when efforts in Albany, Georgia had failed, King admitted he had not involved the local community enough. So, King “made it a point to spend a great deal of time with the youth gangs that had caused all the violence in the previous march…[who, as a result] agreed to assist in the upcoming march and keep it nonviolent,” (Phillips, 1998, p. 325). By admitting defeat, assuming responsibility and learning from his mistakes, King exemplified the essence of leadership. II. Confluence of Influence: Leadership Defined Phillips (1998) explains, “the only real power a leader may possess is the power to persuade…People won't follow a new leader unless they…are persuaded that the course advocated is the right one to take,” (p. 61). DePree (2000) presents another perspective: A leader is a person who has followers. Leaders are those from whom we learn. They influence the setting of society’s agenda. They have visions…They create…Their behavior and
  2. 2. From Montgomery to Memphis… © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 2 of 5 words positively reinforce the best in our society. Leaders trumpet the breaking up and the breaking down of civility. They offer hope…They ask the painful and necessary questions (p. 4). According to Maxwell (1998), “leadership is influence,” (p. 17). King was influenced by Ghandi (Phillips, 1998). It wasn’t until King studied the assassinated Indian leader that he embraced nonviolence – the cornerstone of his cause. Similarly, the start of the civil rights movement was influenced by Rosa Parks when she refused to move to the back of the bus. King’s mastery of leadership is especially admirable because “his leadership…was always being questioned during his lifetime,” (Ling, 2003, p. 1). Knowing this how was it possible for King to accomplish what he did? III. Assessing Aptitude and Attitude The key to King’s outward achievement can be found in his internal orientation. Primary components of his exceptional aptitude and attitude include: Humility: A Reluctant Reverend Lao Tzu cautions leaders “Do not intrude. Do not control,” (Heider, 1985, p. 33). King reluctantly assumed leadership of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Phillips (1998) argues, “because he had not sought the point – and even hesitated at accepting it – Martin may have been the best possible leader,” (p. 42). A humble leader is more open to alternative viewpoints and can tactfully modify, then satisfy expectations. While some feel compromise equals capitulation, retreating (even slightly) often yields greater gains. Listening: An Ear without Fear DePree (1998) explains, “The leader listens to the ideas, needs, aspirations, and wishes of the followers and then…responds,” (p. xxi). Ling (2003) adds, “King…listened while others argued… and then he would calmly sum up the debate and identify a way forward,” (p. 2). Leaders connect with their followers. Listening to and integrating the desires of others into an effort develops trust, which renders respect, which creates community. Biologically speaking, humans have two ears and only one mouth – which function does Mother Nature favor? Communication: The Strength of Storytelling DePree (2000) argues, “good leaders…have stories. Stories help us learn and remember whom we are, where we have been, where we are going,” (p. 1). Using a mixture of metaphors, movements, similes, imagery, alliteration, rhythm, cadence and repetition, King held audiences spellbound. However, he, “also spoke in the shared language of the community,” (Phillips, 1998, p. 90). Storytelling is the heart of consensus building. Education: A Yearn to Learn Maxwell (1998) claims "leaders are learners," (p. 23). Phillips (1998) mentions, “Martin…constantly learned from experience – so that he could do better the next time around,” (p. 77). King was also aware that education was a prerequisite for future advancements. “’We in this generation must stimulate our children to learn,’” he is quoted as saying (Phillips, 1998, p. 208).
  3. 3. From Montgomery to Memphis… © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 3 of 5 Compassion: Lovers Share Soup DePree (2000) tells how, after sampling a bowl of his granddaughter’s soup, she exclaimed “’lovers share soup,” (p. 6). In response, DePree (2000) says, “we don’t think enough about love,” (p. 6). Love was the foundation of King’s cause. In his August 28, 1963 “I have a dream” speech, King proclaims, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force,” (ABC News, 2013). Phillips (1998) believes King “became the acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement, in large part, because he combined a deep-seated compassion and empathy with oratorical skill,” (p. 96). Empowerment: Involving Others and Sharing Success Maxwell (1998) observes, “only empowered people can reach their potential…the greatest things happen only when you give others the credit,” (p. 126-127). King made efforts to share success with everyone and rewarded initiative. Recognizing “nonviolent direct action…had to be taught,” (Phillips, 1998, p. 204-205), King recruited future leaders early. Phillips (1998) describes this as a succession strategy: “part of the reason for such intensive training was to develop new leaders from the organization’s existing ranks – those who could take over when the current leaders were long gone,” (p. 206). Management: Administration of Inspiration Leadership is about inspiration. Management is about administration. Leadership may ignite a fire, but effective management keeps it burning. Kotter (1998) warns, “strong leadership with weak management is no better, and is sometimes actually worse, than the reverse,” (p. 39). While he had a ‘dream,’ King paid attention to details. Phillips (1998) explains, “for every major initiative during the decade of the civil rights movement there were frequent planning and strategy sessions,” (p. 160). Consistency: Practicing What You Preach Phillips (1998) argues, “People will respect and follow leaders who do what they advise others to do, who display courage in the face of adversity, who act and behave as they are expected to,” (p. 119). Once, while giving a speech, King was punched in the face by member of the Nazi party. King later proclaimed, “I’m not interested in pressing charges. I’m interested in changing the kind of system that produces this kind of man,” (Phillips, 1998, p. 100). Optimism: Heal with Hope As explained by Phillips (1998), “hope is a sustaining element, not only in leadership, but in life. Hope motivates and inspires. It causes people to take action,” (p. 279). Hope is future focused, hate is anchored to the past. “Even though he had private doubts, Martin maintained an outwardly optimistic attitude,” wrote Phillips (1998, p. 46). When the protagonist in the film Shawshank Redemption is told, “’Hope is a dangerous thing,’ he responds, ‘Hope is a good thing…no good thing ever dies,” (IMDB, 2013, p. 1).
  4. 4. From Montgomery to Memphis… © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 4 of 5 IV. Conclusion: Creating Lasting Change Leaders make a difference. According to Phillips (1998), “change is what leadership is all about. Leaders are change-makers, they are masters of change. By helping followers achieve goals, they lead people to where they’ve never been before. Leaders blaze new trails …Leaders are out in front,” (p. 263). Martin Luther King, Jr. created lasting change because he “portrayed the cause as bigger than any one person,” (Phillips, 1998, p. 337). A dedicated humanist with an undying spirit, King possessed “an indescribable capacity for empathy that is the touchstone of leadership,” (Phillips, 1998, p. 287). His outward, universal energy motivated others to achieve their own personal potential. People followed King because he was equally as committed to the cause as they were. According to Phillips (1998), “people listened to him and followed him precisely because he articulated their longings, their hopes, their aspirations, and their dreams – and because he experienced what they experienced,” (p. 287). King taught his followers how to fish – and didn’t just feed them when they were hungry. He inspired them towards a collective independence – confidence in themselves and a lasting commitment to each other. He wanted the struggle to continue beyond his time and knew that would only happen if he empowered others. Intriguingly, the concluding remarks of Kings “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis eerily echoed those of Moses when he proclaimed to the Israelites: The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.’ The Lord your God Himself will cross over before you; and He Himself will wipe out those nations from your path and you shall dispose them (Jewish Publication Society, 1985, p. 323). By awakening the internal intelligence of the individuals whom he directly influenced – and those his words and actions continue to touch – King led an entire generation cross into the Promised Land of true freedom. As a result, he made a difference in his world and worlds to come. King’s dream is alive today as it ever was. References ABC News. (2013). Martin Luther King's Speech: 'I Have a Dream' - The Full Text. Downloaded April 4, 2013 from text/story?id=14358231&singlePage=true#.UV2E-ZPvuSo. DePree, M. (1989). Leadership is an Art. New York, NY: Bantam Dell. DePree, M. (2000). Does Leadership Have a Future? Pasadena, CA: DePree Leadership Center. Heider, J. (1985). The Tao of Leadership: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age. Atlanta, GA: Humanics Limited. IMDB (2013). Quotes for Andy Dufresne (Character) from The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Downloaded April 4, 2013 from
  5. 5. From Montgomery to Memphis… © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 5 of 5 Jewish Publication Society. (1985). Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures, According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society Kotter, J. (1998). What Leaders Really Do. Harvard Business Review on Leadership, 37-60. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing. Ling, P. (2003, April 1). Martin Luther King’s Style of Leadership. Downloaded April 4, 2013 from Maxwell, J. (1998). The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers. Phillips, D. (1998). Martin Luther King, Jr. On Leadership: Inspiration and Wisdom for Challenging Times. New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc. Publication Credit Gilbert, M. (2004). From Montgomery to Memphis: Lessons on leadership from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Alkhafaji, A., Biberman, J. & Gardner, C. (Eds.), Business Research Yearbook, Vol. XI (pp. 891-895). Saline, MI: McNaughton & Gunn.