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Lead Like Martin Luther King

Everyone would like to lead like Martin Luther King, but few have his spellbinding oratory. Is it a hopeless fantasy? Not if you understand the essence of his leadership.

Martin Luther King led by challenging the status quo to eliminate discrimination against African Americans. He had a leadership impact on the general public and various levels of government. His protests against segregation on buses led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare such discrimination unconstitutional.

King’s leadership was very different from the conventional variety that entails being in charge of people. It was not a role but a discrete act of influence; King was not in a position to make decisions for the Supreme Court.

Of course, we can explore how King showed leadership to those who worked with him. This is what conventional leadership theory discusses. But if King also had a leadership impact on the world at large, that is a different kind of leadership because most of the latter did not work with him or even know him.

Green leadership works the same way. Anyone advocating energy conservation could have a leadership impact on groups across the globe without being a member of them. Similarly, when front line employees influence their bosses to adopt new products or better processes, they show leadership bottom up. The Sony employee who developed PlayStation convinced management to adopt this product even though they didn’t think Sony should make toys.

What does it take so show leadership like Martin Luther King? His powerful speech making ability enabled him to influence millions of people. He displayed great courage to challenge the status quo. But the strength of courage and influencing skills required is situational. It depends on the issue and the receptivity of the target audience.

The question often asked: "What was Martin Luther King's leadership style?" presupposes that his leadership was shown only to his supporters. However interesting that question may be, it overlooks how he showed leadership to the general public and that was by challenging the status quo, having the courage to speak up for his convictions.

Leadership is ABOUT something, specific issues or content. Green leadership is about the environment, for instance. Leadership issues range from advocating major changes in values to minor product alterations. Resistance ranges from impossible (changing hardline views on abortion) to easy (promoting new products to opportunists).

The less contentious the issue and the lower the resistance the more that content becomes king. In such situations, you might sway your audience even with poor influencing skills. Creative artists have a leadership impact on their imitators even if they have zero emotional intelligence.

Leadership is in the eye of the beholder, as with all forms of influence. Take sales. You could have fantastic sales ability but still fail to sell ice cubes to Eskimos. Conversely, if you had a stash of the latest iPads the day they went on sale, you wouldn’t need to be very good at selling to unload them.

So, you can show leadership every day simply by advocating something new, a better way on any aspect of your work.  Leadership thus conceived means showing the way for others, either by example or advocacy. You have led others already by setting an example, by working harder or smarter than them.

Why should we count as leadership such small-scale acts of influence? But this just begs the question: Why should we count only heroic acts as leadership? Heroes make the headlines, but small-scale leadership occurs all around us every day.

Green leaders, Martin Luther King and bottom up leaders stand outside their target audiences. They don’t take people on a journey; they simply promote one, leaving it to them to take the trip themselves.

To lead like Martin Luther King, find something you feel passionate about that needs changing. If your content is good enough, it matters less who you are as a person. It’s not about you; it’s about what will move your audience. Your enthusiasm alone might be sufficient to lead others. This is a very empowering take on leadership. You don’t have to take charge of people, even informally; just promote a better way.


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