Leadership lessons from Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr Oaza Academy Entrepreneurship & Leadership

King was 39 years old when his life was ended by a bullet of an assassin after numerous assassination attempts. He gave his life for the cause he believed in. 

At that time, he was recognized as one of great leaders of modern times and was called “the moral leader of the nation”. He was to receive the Nobel Prize for his courageous leadership and his advice was sought by presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Who was this boy born in 1929 in Atlanta? He grew up in a black neighborhood with his father, a Baptist minister. Martin was a hard working student, considerate of his peers. King became head pastor of the Baptist church in Montgomery 25 years later after receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy at Boston University.

Yousuf Karsh Martin Luther King 1962 1574x1960 1 Joyful Leadership Creating new generation of leaders

Dr. King wrote that Gandhi’s methods were ‘‘the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.’’ King was the right man in the right place at the right time when on December 1955 an incident happened in Montgomery. African American Rosa Parks paid her fare and boarded a bus in the “Negro section” at the back of the bus. Six whites boarded the crowded bus and the bus driver ordered the blacks to give up their seats so that whites could be seated. Rosa Parks remained seated and for this she was arrested. It was time to act. King urged that the action be nonviolent and one day a boycott of the bus line by the Black people was planned. King expected a boycott turnout of about 60% only to be amazed later by almost 100% participation. He was elected to lead the Montgomery Freedom movement and the boycott evolved into a 382-day event until the Supreme Court declared the Alabama law requiring race segregation on buses null and void.

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Later King organized the March on Washington to give impetus to the Civil Rights Bill of Kennedy-Johnson and 250 000 people showed up on August 23, 1963 waiting for Martin Luther King to speak. 

The famous speech followed:

 “…I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood… I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” 

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After the speech there was a moment of silence and then a thunder of approval. Dr. King was able, by using only words, to keep the Black Freedom movement from turning into violence. Coretta King describes a situation after a bomb was thrown at his home in Montgomery and over 1000 angry and armed blacks gathered ready to ght with the police. King delivered a speech and stopped the blacks in a manner that a white policeman commented “If it had not been for that nigger preacher we’d all be dead”. Martin Luther King Jr. was not only a great leader but also a great follower. He followed the leadership of Dr. Benjamin Spock and others in a demonstration against the Vietnam war. 


  • King’s leadership during the challenging times of the civil rights era was transformational for the people he served. Inspiration was the common denominator of his inuence.
  • Vision – pursue the impossible. King was able to envision the idea of a black or female president and years after his assassination Obama became president. You cannot improve your society or organization if you don’t believe something better is possible.
  • The determination, conviction and joy regarding his vision of a better future were contagious. Referent and legitimate power formed the base of his inuence. He was the legitimate elected leader of the Black Freedom movement and a reference authority of a possible better future.
  • Empathy was shown not only with Rosa Parks but with all segregated people. He even moved his family into a rundown building in Chicago for six months when he was working to end housing inequalities. As you work to lead your team get in the arena with them on a regular basis, so you can better understand what they are dealing with.
  • A lifelong learning, King made many references to philosophers and other historical thinkers like Gandhi thus learning to improve his leadership skills. One can take cues and guiding principles from other leaders.
  • A transformational leader focuses more on the end-goal for the greater good, rather than his/her own comfort. You’ll have to put the mission ahead of your personal comfort if you want the vision to be realized. Courage is the name of the game in referent power.
  • Empower the powerless and thousands will follow. The “I have a dream’’ speech is remembered because it demanded equality in civil rights and voting rights, education, employment and housing. King has helped the protesters to form a new sense of self-identity and pride. You must impress followers by their own power, not just by yours as a leader.
  • Great leaders are often great followers. Being a leader in one situation might boost your ego but do not forget that others might be more appropriate leaders in a given situation and you can support the change by being a great follower. Serving others is the goal of Joyful Leadership and humility is a prevention mechanism to self gratification.

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  1. Joyful Leadership Manual


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