Martin Luther King: Apex Leader

Monday 20 January was Martin Luther King Day. Some know him as one of America’s greatest orators. He was also one of its most gifted leaders

MLK was to the chapel born. “I grew up in a church. My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great grand-father was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy’s brother is a preacher. So I didn’t have much choice”. In the 1950s, the church was not only a rallying point for Black activists. In the absence of constitutional representation, it’s preachers also served African Americans as de-facto political leaders. Little wonder then that MLK soon rose to the top as lead figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement.

If his speeches are anything to go by, MLK was a force of nature. But there was more to the man than great phrase-making namely, his ambidexterity as a leader. Given its size and scale, to say nothing of the diverse personalities that comprised it, the Civil Rights Movement needed what one author has described as an “apex leader”. King was such a captain, one who could define not just the essence of the movement but the nature and scale of its operations as well. Thus, he toggled continuously between three competing modalities: a symbolic role, a strategic role and that of spokesman. King’s ability to balance these so effectively over a 13 year period is testament to his stamina and greatness as a leader MLK the Symbol While there were many notable activists within the Civil Rights Movement, no one proved more willing and indeed capable of carrying its vision and burden. Thus King’s very body...where it was seen, when and by who, communicated as much or more to both allies and enemies as how he used his brain and mouth. Given the scale of the undertaking however, King couldn’t be everywhere at once and was frequently at risk of disappointing and even alienating his allies. Fortunately, like his namesake from the Reformation 400 years prior, King had a nose for the media. Just as Luther sent the printing press into battle, MLK emerged as one of the first great leaders to harness the power of television MLK the Strategist In addition to the symbolic role King played, there was the day-to-day running of the movement which, at its peak employed a team of 50 persons and wielded an annual budget of $400 000 - no small sum in those days. In addition, there was the “always-on” burden of maintaining unity between the diverse and squabbling array of personalities that comprised the movement. Ultimately, however, there was the question of how and where best to deploy its force. King learned very quickly that general protests didn’t work and that you had to rail hard against a single and distinct aspect of segregation. “At first, our protests were so vague that we got nothing and the people were left depressed and in despair”. All causes - especially those as sprawling and complex as segregation, need a concrete focal point. As psychologist Dan Heath points out, “Language is abstract, but life is not” Even the most abstract strategy must eventually show up in the tangible actions of human beings.” This insight led to a series of clinically executed peaceful mass actions directed at things and places that embodied racism. This included segregated public transport as well as the city of Birmingham Alabama, “the most segregated place in America”. Of the latter, King wrote: “If Birmingham could be cracked, the direction of the entire non-violent movement could take a significant turn”. And it did. MLK the Spokesperson While the previous two roles may not have come naturally, speaking and writing did. By 1964, King was travelling up 325 000 miles and delivering some 450 speeches a year. Writer Jason Mangone says that “it was as if he had prepared his entire life for this”. While still studying divinity, King took no less than nine courses on the “art of pulpit oratory” - something he continued to practice after he was ordained. In the tradition of comedians and jazz musicians, it was common for Black pastors to “riff” and improvise on sermons late into the night with no audience but themselves. This might explain why nearly 30% of his most famous speech, (the Dream speech heard by over 240 000 people on the Washington Mall in August 1963) was improvised. It would join Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as two of the greatest oratories ever uttered on American soil. Listening to a television broadcast in the White House, a gobsmacked John. F Kennedy turned to his companions saying; “Damn he’s good!” But King did not only excel in the spoken word. Once, while in solitary confinement in an Alabama Jail, (one of 12 spells in prison), King read an editorial from white religious leaders condemning him and his movement. In the margin of the newspaper, King began writing his now-famous rebuttal, a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” - a masterpiece of penmanship if ever there was one.


King’s life is a stark lesson in the murky art of leading change. His 14 years at the helm of the Civil Rights Movement were testament to the fact that change is a complex interplay of forces: Writes Stanley McChrystal in his book “Leaders: Myth and Reality”

“Reform cannot be reduced to a single, climactic event, speech or court case. Instead, it is an extended process, a journey that twists, turns, starts and stops, as though it were an animate object that defies control by a single individual. Reformers are riders of an unruly horse, normally expending as much energy to hang on as to direct where and how fast the animal is going”

No-one rode that bronco better than Martin Luther King did

Leaders: Myth and Reality. Stanley McChrystal Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die - Dan and Chip Heath

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