MLK on leadership: Of current relevance

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Al Jamerson
  • Headquarters U.S. Air Force
The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had many personas depending on one's perspective: a minister, activist, hero, troublemaker -- even communist.

But as you look back on his legacy, I believe even his staunchest opponents would probably agree that he was a leader -- a man with an absolute belief in the strategy of non-violence, and the supreme conviction that all men and women deserved to be treated with respect and dignity.

In the book, Martin Luther King Jr., on Leadership: Inspiration and Wisdom for Challenging Times, Donald T. Phillips presented a review of King's leadership principles and applied those principles to the challenges leaders face today.

Two of King's leadership traits in particular caught my attention: He encouraged creativity and innovation; and involved everyone through alliance, teamwork, and diversity.

King believed in a non-violent civil rights movement in spite of tough opposition from many who advocated fighting fire with fire. He knew African Americans would lose a violent struggle, so he and the other civil rights leaders adopted innovative approaches to accomplish their mission.

In 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, created an integration strategy of sending black and white riders to the south on buses. Their efforts failed and many of the riders were jailed.

In the 1960s, CORE resurrected the idea and asked for King's support. He saw this as a chance to push his non-violence approach.

The idea worked with varied success as some of the Freedom Riders were killed, but it brought the national attention they needed to push civil rights into a large national debate. King's creative and innovative leadership ultimately paved the way for future civil rights victories.

King recognized that the good ideas of others passionate about a cause could shape an organization's drive to meet current and future challenges. That same push for creativity and innovation is what drives military success today.

Early air and space attempts resulted in numerous failures and anomalies before the technologies matured, but the persistent creativity and innovation of our past aerospace visionaries ultimately produced the world's greatest Air Force.

Today's leaders have the same responsibility to encourage and cultivate those same traits within their organizations, thus motivating their workforces to institute change needed for future success.

As a young leader, King had success galvanizing his portion of the civil rights movement, but he was viewed as a turf-builder by 'established' civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

King knew there was no time for competition between groups because the stakes were too high. He began to build an alliance of organizations working towards the same goal, but he did not just work with African American organizations -- he also sought cooperation from various political, social, economic, cultural, intellectual and religious groups.

King developed a broad-based, diverse alliance to help pull off perhaps the biggest social revolution in American history.

As leaders, our job is not to implement social revolution, but to seek organizational improvements in these times of dynamic change and shrinking resources. By encouraging alliance, teamwork, and diversity, leaders can create four problem-solving advantages that King recognized and employed: banding individuals together to create energy, enthusiasm, and courage; people gaining more strength and power in formal organizations; using groups to make major changes; and using alliances to help with networking.

You only need to look at how the Defense Department is approaching its most pervasive problem, sexual assault, to see King's philosophy in action.

DOD's sexual assault prevention transition strategy brings together all services and multidisciplinary groups to identify problems and create and implement solutions to address sexual assault challenges across the DOD enterprise.

Like King, DOD leaders realized they could not address a major societal issue within individual service cultures ... it had to install a foundational approach that all members of the profession of arms could embrace as part of a new culture of prevention, respect and compliance. In short, the strategy encourages a diverse alliance brought together as a network to create change that improves organizational health and readiness.

King said, "All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem."

As leaders continue to combat complex problems like sexual assault, they will invariably uncover other issues that need to be addressed.

By studying and applying the leadership traits and experiences of Dr. King, leaders will affect positive change with a few of the most powerful tools known to mankind: creativity, innovation, alliance, teamwork and diversity.