U04: Do transgressions in one area impact leadership in others?

U04: Do transgressions in one area impact leadership in others?


One of the most charismatic leaders to emerge during the last century is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is venerated for leading nonviolent protests during the civil rights movement. His leadership was instrumental in overcoming the systemic racial discrimination of the times. He has been honored with numerous awards; streets bear his name; a memorial was built in Washington, D.C.; a federal holiday honors his work. Even with all these honors to his name, history is revealing that Dr. King was vulnerable to the same personality faults as many other leaders through the ages.

According to the Five-Factor Model of Personality, there are five primary factors that make up one’s personality. (Northouse, 2016).  These are neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.  No one can doubt that dr. King was high in extraversion, the tendency to be sociable and assertive and to have positive energy. (Northouse, 2016). As a pastor and as the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, these traits were critical to Dr. King becoming a leader in his community and the civil rights movement.

Dr. King also displayed high openness which directly correlates to his leadership ability. Openness includes the personality factor of intelligence. (PSU, 2016).   He displayed high general intelligence being accepted into college at the age of 15. (Yanco, 2014). “He was exceptionally well-versed in Christian theology and the ethical precepts that he understood to be the core of his religion and of all major world religions.” (Yanco, p.10, 2014). He also displayed other types of intelligence through the years, primary of these was his ability to communicate to move others to action.

The personality factor that probably propelled Dr. King into the civil rights movement was perhaps conscientiousness.  People with this factor tend to be thorough, organized, controlled, dependable and decisive. Dr. King took on the leadership of the group that organized the Montgomery bus boycott displaying organizational skills, decisive ability. (Yanco, 2014). The bus boycott and the entire nonviolent movement he led was grounded in his personality factor of conscientiousness.

All Dr. King’s levels of personality traits contribute to his being a very charismatic speaker and leader. Charisma is “the combination of dominance, desire to influence, self-confidence, and strong moral values.” PSU, 2016). Dr. King had all these, including the strong moral values. Unfortunately, as time goes on, violations of these strong moral values are coming to light.

In 1990, a committee of scholars concluded part of Dr. King’s original doctoral dissertation was plagiarized. (NYT, 1991).  Despite that, and perhaps due to his legacy of good, the committee recommended Dr. King retain his doctoral degree. (NYT, 1991) As we know from the APA Code of Conduct Standard 8.11, plagiarism is unethical. (APA, 2011).  Also, rumors of adultery are a murmur in the background when discussing his life. As a result of an FBI investigation, details of alleged Dr. King’s extramarital affairs have made it into the public conscious. (Christensen, 2008).  Pastors are expected to live a virtuous, moral life and violations of those codes are viewed negatively and that those who participate in immoral activity do so from a narcissistic stance.

Do these transgressions negate the lifetime of good Dr. King performed?  Do they cast a blur upon his image as an effective leader? Dr. King had a lasting positive impact on the nation, a characteristic of a charismatic leader. (PSU, 2016).  As the lesson points out, “a charismatic leader is still human and makes mistakes.” (PSU, 2016).  Dr. King’s contributions to the advancement of civil rights in America far outweigh his personal transgressions. Pseudo-charisma involves a higher degree of narcissism than true charisma. (PSU, 2016).  I believe Dr. King’s narcissism was not at a high enough level to devalue his charisma into the pseudo-charisma category in regards to his leadership of the civil rights movement. Although in those acts, Dr. King acted from a self-serving standpoint, his leadership in the civil rights movement was not self-serving. As the lesson says, “all humans make mistakes, and people often learn best from their mistakes, including ones that involve unethical behavior.” (PSU, 2016).  I believe that had Dr. King been alive when these violations came to light, he would have expressed regret and learned from them.



American Psychological Association. (2010, June 1). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct: Including 2010 amendments. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/

Christensen, J. (2008, December 29).  FBI tracked King’s every move. CNN. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/03/31/mlk.fbi.conspiracy/index.html

The New York Times [NYT]. (1991, October 10). Boston U. panel finds plagiarism by Dr. King. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/11/us/boston-u-panel-finds-plagiarism-by-dr-king.html

Northouse, P. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Yanco, J. (2014). Misremembering Dr. King: Revisiting the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN: 978-0-253001424-5

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