Few civil rights leaders could galvanize different-minded peoples into cooperative forward movement the way Martin Luther King, Jr. was able. But what made his leadership style so effective, and what can we learn from him today?
King knew that empowerment was the fuel of the Civil Rights Movement, and that to feel empowered, one must first feel heard. “Calling King a great listener isn’t the typical praise people shower on him,” says CNN’s John Blake. “But he didn’t just talk his way to greatness. He listened his way to it as well.”
King surrounded himself with people who constantly challenged his viewpoint and made a point of listening to the entirety of their arguments. Even his management style revolved around listening. “The Southern Christian Leadership Conference [co-founded by Dr. King] was always a battle...” said Andrew Young, the former United Nations Ambassador who was part of King’s inner circle. “Each one had very strong opinions and their own ideas about the way the movement should go, and Dr. King encouraged that.” Young remembers that King would sit quietly, giving each member his undivided attention, and making sure they got the chance to say everything they wanted to say.
But King didn’t only listen to other leaders, he also listened to those he led. Most Americans are familiar with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. What many don’t know is those four iconic words almost weren’t said. Dr. King opened his speech as planned, reading closely from his notes. He planned to build his speech to a rousing call of action by challenging the crowd to “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction!” But when he got to those lines, he stopped.
Sensing his struggle, Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer who was sitting nearby, leaned toward Dr. King and said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” King’s adviser, Clarence Jones, remembered, “King looked over at Jackson and nodded. Then he took his written speech that had been prepared and slid it out of the way.” What followed was one of the most moving, inspirational speeches of all time.
King understood that humans have a basic need to be heard and understood, and he spent a great deal of his time quietly absorbing what his followers had to say. When addressing crowds, he spoke to their suffering, specifically naming the experiences they told him about, acknowledging they’d been beaten, jailed and unfairly persecuted. He listened, and so did they.
Under Dr. King’s leadership, thousands of people rose to incredible acts of moral heroism, peacefully resisting their oppressors, even in the face of unmitigated violence. King understood that to empower his people, he not only had to listen to them, he had to make them feel heard. In doing so, he earned the trust of a nation, and changed our country forever.
Dr. King understood he could earn trust and motivate others through empowerment. That same principle applies today. Are you wondering how to empower those you lead? Are you looking for more ways to make your employees feel heard? Let us share more leadership lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr. and other empowering leaders in a workshop or staff retreat. You bring the team members, and we’ll create an immersive learning program, linking timeless historical examples with your individual workplace issues.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION! Dr. King understood that empowering others is essential to effective leadership. Do you believe your organization is effective in this area? What are some things you’d like to change, or ideas you’d like to try? Please share your ideas and comments below.