Martin Luther King Jr. is seen today as an example of an exceptional, “born” leader who understood his vision and mission perfectly, and who was able to reach out to others to work on a common goal or mission. One of the King’s important traits was his ability to listen to and understand different points of view. Furthermore, he did not only understand those but was also able to motivate people with different agendas to work on the same goal (Ling 148). Today, he is perceived as one of the greatest leaders in American history who genuinely cared about his followers and their future.
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Martin Luther King was an emergent leader; he was not successful at first and experienced different failures during his way to becoming a great leader. He was criticized by activists of different races, and during the 1960s, when the action was supported eagerly by students, King was perceived as too hesitant by some (Ling 67). However, his experience in historical events, including boycotts, and active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement allowed him to polish his leadership skills and strengthen followers’ support and his position in it. King was a trait leader, as he was able to translate his vision or his dream to others and make them enthusiastic about it. For example, during his preparation of the Poor People’s Campaign, King directly addressed all dangers that his group would face (including incarceration or scorn) but insisted that they would accept it because “that is what America’s poor now receive” (Jones 340). Although the fear was tremendous during the campaign, King’s followers not only supported him but actively followed his instructions and did not abandon the goal despite possible consequences.
King had expert and referent power; he was admired and appreciated by activists, but his understanding of the situation rooted in his university study of theology, his personal experience, and his relationships with authorities (i.e., he was arrested many times and spied on by the FBI). Although he is often praised for his nonviolent approach toward activism (and rightly so), it is important to remember that he was a fierce and powerful activist. Some researchers assume that Martin Luther King Jr. was a transformational leader: a leader who can share their vision of the future and motivate followers to strive for it, inspiring them to contribute to the process of goal achievement (Carton et al. 1546). As we know, King was an expert in picturing goals (for example, via his speeches, especially “I Have a Dream”). Thus, King used approaches of a leadership style that was not defined in detail during the 1960s but actively used in the Civil Rights Movement. In a way, it is possible to say that King was a pioneer in transformational leadership, as he used it actively before managers understood how effective it could be.
Martin Luther King was a trait leader with expert and referent power, whose ability to inspire people and share a common goal among thousands of followers helped him significantly influence the USA and the rest of the world. His decision to build his leadership on nonviolence and Christian beliefs helped him utilize a unique leadership style that transformed the Civil Rights Movement. Although King was not an assigned leader, he became an admired icon of a movement by fighting for what he believed to be right.
Carton, Andrew M., et al. “A (Blurry) Vision of the Future: How Leader Rhetoric about Ultimate Goals Influences Performance.” Academy of Management Journal, vol. 57, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1544-1570.
Jones, Trina. “Occupying America: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the American Dream, and the Challenge of Socio-Economic Inequality.” Vill. L. Rev, vol. 57, no. 2, 2012, pp. 339-356.
Ling, Peter J. Martin Luther King, Jr. Routledge, 2015.