Throughout of lives, people will come and go. Leaders will come and go. A parent, a coach, a teacher, a new manager…these are the individuals that will affect our lives. A parent will touch the lives of their children, and a good teacher will touch the lives of many children. Then there are times will a leader comes along and changes the lives of a generation and leaves an impact that lasts for generations to come.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was just that type of transformational leader. Next month, April 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Though his time on earth was cut short, he managed to emerge as a leader who would help to change the lives of many generations to come. This is the embodiment of transformational leadership. Northouse (2016) states that “transformational leadership involves an exceptional form of influence that moves followers to accomplish more than what is usually expected of them” (p. 161). Through a policy on non-violent resistance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to motivate and mobilize a race and class of people that had been systematically subjugated and brutalized by the only government and nation they’d ever known.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first emerged as a leader in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the movement was moving down a path of violence and destruction that could have ultimately led to a war in our country. Through his leadership, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to key in on the underlying moral expectations of society as a whole in order to transform the direction the nation was heading. Northouse (2016) states that “transformational leadership is the process whereby a person engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower” (p. 161).
A key element of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s leadership was his charismatic approach. Charismatic leaders “are strong role models for the beliefs and values they want their followers to adopt…appear competent to followers…and articulate goals that have moral overtones” (Northouse, 2016, p. 163). Ling (2018) notes “From the outset of his career in Montgomery in 1955, right through to his death in 1968, King had a remarkable ability to get people who would otherwise be constantly feuding to work together” (para. 7). This ability to persuade was a direct reflection of his charisma; as he was able to get parties that would normally not associate with one another to the table, and to view one another’s perspectives in was they hadn’t before. Relative to his ability to transform society, “his ability to articulate the moral dimensions of the struggle in ways that appealed to moderate public opinion” (Ling, 2018). This meant that whites, even in the Deep South, were able to start to see the civil rights movement as a justifiable right for humanity, and not just for African-Americans. Even in the deeply conservative south, King “made it easier to accept change” (Ling, 2018). His charisma proceeded to radiate to his followers long after his death. Results of charismatic leadership include “follower trust in the leader’s ideology, similarity between the followers’ beliefs and the leader’s beliefs, unquestioning acceptance of the leader, expression of affection toward the leader, follower obedience, identification with the leader, emotional involvement in the leader’s goals, heightened goals for followers, and increased follower confidence in goal achievement (Northouse, 2016, p. 164). It is easy to see the evidence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s charismatic and transformational leadership in the dedication of those that followed him.
Turner et al (2002) note that “transformational leaders communicate a collective vision and inspire followers to look beyond their self-interests for the good of the group” (p. 305). Ultimately, Dr. King died for his cause, and so did many others during the civil rights movement. For them, the cause of the movement was worth more than the cost of their lives, for they considered themselves to be transforming the future not only for themselves, but for everyone that would come after them.
Ling, P. J. (2018). Martin Luther King’s Style of Leadership. BBC.co.uk. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/recent/martin_luther_king_01.shtml
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: Sage Publications
Turner, N., Barling, J., Epitropaki, O., Butcher, V., & Milner, C. (2002). Transformational leadership and moral reasoning. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 304–311.