It is the day after Martin Luther’s holiday and in my reflection I thought I would share some principles for Transformational Leadership from the life of a man who was the leader of change that impacted every strata of American Culture and Society. As a testament to his contributions as a leader, visionary and hero, on Oct. 16, 2011, we witnessed the unveiling of the 30-foot-tall “Stone of Hope” statue of the American civil rights pioneer. The memorial is the first on the National Mall to honor an African-American and the first to honor a person who did not serve as president.
Much of my admiration is based on his courage, continual focus on excellence and commitment to lifelong learning. The one key to his leadership that is often not mentioned is strong personal centering spiritually and how he maintained a healthy interior life. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left us with so many words and lessons that we can apply to evolve into a transformational leader.
- Lead from one’s interior Life
Coretta Scott King in her remembrance of him stated that Martin Luther King integrated his theology with social change and it all began at the heart of an individual person. He sought the integration of the spiritual and the intellectual. In his sermon “Love in Action” he preached that “one day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong. Only through the bringing together of head and heart – intelligence and goodness –shall man rise to this fulfillment.” For Martin Luther King the demand of maintaining a tender heart demanded that one would be given to a Contemplative life that allowed one to confront the pain that if not processed through a person would default to conformity to this world. For him conformity to this world would be to allow evil to continue under the guise of a false peace.
For Martin Luther King it is only through an inner spiritual transformation does one gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit that will never yield to a passive sort of patience which an excuse to do nothing. The central focus of King’s maintaining a healthy interior life was to become fully obedient to God that one not simply speak the truth but rather one embodies and lives that truth in their daily living. For Martin Luther King Jesus Christ was the perfect example of living this out and his rhythm of spending time with the Father. In his own words the “private” will always become “public.”
- Articulate a vision that benefits the “ALL”
People will often make the intellectual mistake that the vision and message of Martin Luther King was simply for the African- American to receive civil freedoms. The powerful vision that Martin Luther King was justice for all people. He was able to bring together a core leadership team that a variety of people from diverse ethnicities, diverse educational and religious backgrounds, diverse socio-economic status, and both genders. His common prayer was for the Lord to use him for a purpose that was far greater than himself and he often reminded members of his leadership team that what they were doing would impact through all ethnic and social barriers. In one of his moments of theological discussion with members of a college faculty he stated, “If sin has broken through all barriers of the human existence then a vision that is of God must have a message of hope that transcends all barriers so that it can liberate ALL people!”
Martin Luther King understood that casting this type of vision was the most challenging because those who did not consider themselves in need of a message of change would be the ones who would resist and at times this would include violence. For King, this did not make the vision wrong because those who would benefit would be the very ones to resist but instead it acted as a call for one to love more deeply and to love more broadly as Christ did for humanity. King understood a vision that only helped a segment of humanity would have to face another day of increased violence that would passionately attempt to kill the seed of liberation. In principle he had the conviction that, “To face todays Goliath is to kill tomorrows hoard.” To not make the difficult decisions today is to create a bigger future problem.
- Demonstrate Faith in People
Wholeheartedly showing someone you believe in him is the simplest, most powerful thing you can do to bring out his best. Leaders have faith in not only in themselves but others. The authentic leader readily acknowledges the commitment and hard work of her followers. When times are tough, people need to know that their work matters. An excellent leader listens to the ideas of the followers and responds. Excellence and leadership should be the signature traits of all of us, street sweeper or president. To be an authentic leader, you simply have to act — to “lead by example.” Martin Luther King developed leaders that eventually went into education, government, industry, as well as the private sector. He was always focused on the success of others rather than his own.
There is so much more to be said concerning Dr. King’s leadership and how it was transformational. His conviction was that “FREEDOM” for people was for one to have the opportunity to explore and discover from the inside/out what it means to be a person who walks into their destiny and to be a force for reconciliation in our world.
Berth, Elizabeth A. 2012. Leadership By Example: 7 Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Texas Enterprise, http://www.texasenterprise.utexas.edu/article/leadership-example-7-lessons-dr-martin-luther-king-jr
King, Martin Luther. 1963. Strength to Love. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
 (King 1963) p 7.
 (King 1963) p 9.
 (King 1963) p 27.
 (Berth 2012)