In his book Leadership, James MacGregor Burns presents a simple and clear definition of leadership: Leadership is leaders acting – as well as caring, inspiring and persuading others to act – for certain shared goals that represent the values – the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations – of themselves and the people they represent. The genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders care about, visualize, and act on their own and their followers’ values and motivations.
The difficulty in understanding leadership may lie in the fact that it is more of an art than a science. In lieu of rules, one has only guiding principles, concepts, and abstractions. Therein lies the challenge of practicing leadership – one best learns to be an effective leader by observing successful leaders. In today’s thoughts, I’m taking a few lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King.
King was certainly visionary and decisive. He knew how to fashion consensus, compromising when necessary. He valued diversity of thought, ability, and culture. His personality was wrapped in a strong bias for action fueled by a high level of personal energy and an almost uncontrollable desire to achieve. His unwavering self-confidence translated into courage in the face of adversity and personal risk.
Among King’s greatest leadership attributes were his uncanny ability to care for the people around him, to establish trust with individuals, and to forge alliances beyond the traditional barriers of age, race, and gender. King believed that the banding together of individuals created energy, enthusiasm, and courage. He knew that major social change is best achieved in groups – an atmosphere causing people to gain more power and strength than when working alone.
King’s leadership style can best be encapsulated by key messages embedded throughout his writings:
- Step forward and take on responsibility for key management issues;
- Describe your movement as part of of a much broader issue – doing so will inspire sustained involvement of a wide array of individuals;
- Stay awake, adjust to new ideas, remain vigilant, and face the challenge of change;
- When any major new development occurs, call the people together and inform them;
- Always speak about the hopes and aspirations of the people in your organization with sincerity, seriousness, and simplicity;
- Action is not in itself a virtue; its goals and its forms determine its value;
- Practice what you preach;
- Let it be known that you intend to act – and that you expect others to act.
King’s optimistic personality was complimented by his persistence and desire to life-long learning. “I subject myself to endless self-analysis,” he once said in an interview. “I question and soul-search constantly into myself to be as certain as I can that I am fulfilling the true meaning of my work, that I am maintaining my sense of purpose, that I am holding fast to my ideals, that I am guiding my people in the right direction”.
King was a gifted storyteller who liberally filled his speeches and sermons with anecdotes and parables. He was a charismatic figure who attracted people by the magnificence of his concepts and held them by the dignity of his actions. Those close to King have commented that he had a strong sense of destiny, as if he were destined for some extraordinary purpose .
King embodied MacGregor’s concept — Leadership is leaders acting – as well as caring, inspiring and persuading others to act – for certain shared goals that represent the values – the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations – of themselves and the people they represent.