Martin Luther King: Leadership Qualities and Behavior

December 27, 2021

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The paper is focused on the figure of Martin Luther King Jr., his leadership qualities, skills, traits and behavior. The essential idea of the paper is that Martin Luther King Jr. was able to combine numerous approaches of leadership to inspire his followers to follow and aid him in achieving his goals of freedom and absence of segregation. In addition, the paper gives an insight into the biography of Martin Luther King Jr. as it is particularly important to understand the key processes that took place in the person since his childhood to comprehend his aims and motives to act. The paper concludes that the leadership models and theories Martin Luther King Jr. used have been particularly successful in achieving the essential goals he was aimed at.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters sought to draw attention to the undemocratic nature of the segregation laws of the southern states of the United States by absolute defiance to these laws. The civil rights movement of Afro-Americans caused the revision of these laws. Herein, in this case, when depicting and analyzing the leadership of Martin Luther King, it is necessary to draw attention to the role of religion. Although religion is extremely closely associated with the central social order that is resisting change, there are times when it criticizes the current situation in society. In the course of the 1960s, the civil rights movement in the US fought for the abolition of segregation in public places and the reduction of racial discrimination in the southern US electoral districts. It was led by religious leaders, especially those of African American churches, such as, for instance, Martin Luther King, who was actually a Baptist priest. The speech uttered by King in 1963 in Washington made an unforgettable impression on its listeners due to the often repeated words claiming “I have a dream.” King meant the end of racial discrimination when all God’s children will live in agreement and peace. Despite the fact that he was killed, his dream continues to live in many hearts. The churches also played the role of centers that trained demonstrators and organized rallies. Therefore, the democratic leadership approaches, skills, traits, and behaviors of Martin Luther King led him to the success and the fame as he changed the course of history and humankind.

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The Specific Leadership Skills, Specific Leadership Behaviors and Specific Leadership Traits of Martin Luther King

Analyzing the leadership approach of Martin Luther King, it is possible to denote that the behavior of situational, emotional, and democratic leaders is applied to this figure. All models of situational leadership, focusing on the impact of external factors, complement each other in understanding its phenomenon. In all models, an attempt is made to identify different leadership styles and to justify the effectiveness of their application with the help of situational variables (Wolfram, Myrick, Forrest & Fox, 2016). At the same time, the models have significant differences in the set of leadership styles in question, various situational factors and ways of finding the connection between them (Wolfram, et al., 2016). This is obvious when considering the figure of Martin Luther King, wherein the different ways in the models determine the effectiveness of leadership.

The motivation and the representations of King were combined with powerful feelings. Even when he was a boy, he was capable of expressing the passion. He deeply sympathized with the poor when he stood in lines for bread during the depression. He felt such love and devotion to his grandmother, who tried to commit suicide by jumping from the second floor twice in his parents’ house.. This ability for strong emotions later revealed in King’s devotion to his racial origins, the conviction and the strength of his speeches. If one looks more closely at the person – to the motive of King, his ideas and feelings – those individual qualities of Martin Luther King Jr. the world then was able to recognize become apparent. However, not only these personal qualities and skills themselves have created him this path (Wolfram, et al., 2016). First, he was in the right place at the right time. Moreover, since King was a novice in the city, he must have been flattered by the request to lead the boycott. It was difficult for him to refuse taking into account the expectations of the population who saw public leaders in preachers (Wolfram, et al., 2016). Hence, the three leadership skills Martin Luther King possessed were the abilities to organize people, lead them to the common goal, and, finally, speak to them in the way they would realize that he is the same as they are.

The leadership traits of Martin Luther King are obvious when both leadership behavior and skills are analyzed. Thus, when it comes to the leadership traits, it is possible to state that he had a special type of commitment to do more and more. Secondly, he made many efforts to inspire the others to turn them into the followers of his ideas and goals. Thirdly, Martin Luther King was exceptionally straightforward in his speeches, which made him extremely popular.

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The Leadership Skill, Leadership Behavior and Leadership Trait that Explain the Success of Martin Luther King

Regarding the life and the speeches by Martin Luther King, one should state state that he was a supporter of the democratic model of leadership, which was connected with situational and emotional leadership. This style of democratic leadership is more preferable. Such leaders are usually tactful, respectful, and objective in communicating with the members of the group. The social and spatial position of the leader is within the group. Such leaders initiate the maximum participation of everyone in the group’s activities, do not concentrate on responsibility but try to distribute it among all members of the group and create an atmosphere of cooperation. Information is not monopolized by the leader and is accessible to members of the team. With this style, the personal commitment of Martin Luther King’ followers to work through participation in management is strengthened (Wolfram, et al., 2016). However, it takes much longer to make decisions than with the authoritarian style of the proposals (Wolfram, et al., 2016). In this case, a leader tries to evade accountability, shifting it to the followers. The installation of such a leader is, as far as possible, an inconspicuous stay on the sidelines. The leader avoids conflicts with people, eliminates the analysis of conflict cases, passing them to his deputies and other people, and tries not to interfere in the course of the group’s activities. This style allows starting a business perhaps, by a more competent subordinate without the intervention of a leader. However, the group may lose its inertia and direction of movement without leadership intervention.

Another leadership trait that made Martin Luther King famous is charisma. The numerous studies show that charisma has a negative side related to the usurpation of personal power or the leader’s full focus on himself while positive feature is related to the emphasis on shared power and the tendency to delegate a part of it to its followers. This helps clarify the modification between common leaders and Martin Luther King. In general, the charismatic leader is credited with the presence of self-confidence, high sensitivity to the external environment, and a vision for solving the problem (Wolfram, et al., 2016). Besides, this helps understand the ability to reduce this vision to a level comprehensible for the followers and encourage them to act.

The models of charismatic leadership differ in the number of stages of charisma development among themselves and in terms of relations with followers. It is believed that in the beginning it is necessary to develop sensitivity to the detection of a problem that could be attacked with criticism. Then it is necessary to develop a vision of idealized ways of solving this problem. The vision should include something new, previously uninvited and as one that can immediately advance the solution of the problem. The next step is connected with the ability of the leader to convey the meaning of his vision through interpersonal communication (publications, speech, gestures, poses, etc.) to followers in such a way that it makes a strong impression on them and stimulates to action (Wolfram, et al., 2016). Further, it is important for a leader to unite followers around him to develop a relationship of trust with them, showing such qualities as knowledge of the case, the ability to achieve success, taking risks, and performing unusual actions. At the final stage, the leader must demonstrate the ability to realize his vision through the delegation of authority to followers. This can be done by putting strenuous and meaningful tasks on other members, involving them to participate in management, thus weakening bureaucratic fetters and rewarding them for the results accordingly (Wolfram, et al., 2016). All these particularities of the leader made Martin Luther King extremely influential and his dream come true.

The studies show that in the usual situation, charismatic leadership is not always required to achieve high results in business. More often, it approaches those cases when followers strongly ideologize their desires and ways of their fulfillment. Within the historic circumstances, wherein Martin Luther King performed his activities, the importance of charismatic leadership increases as necessary in the organization of radical changes in connection with the criticality of the situation (Rubinowitz, 2016). However, in such cases, another concept of leadership arises, namely a leader-transformer or a leader-reformer. These two types of a leader are also applied to the figure of Martin Luther King to a certain extent.

The Martin Luther King’s Approach to the Leadership Theories

Situational theory of leadership argues that the effectiveness of the leader depends on how much the leader is focused on the task, the relationship and the extent to which the he or she controls the group and realizes its influence on it. This statement is fully applied to Martin Luther King and his approach. There is an assumption that leaders can be divided into two large types. Representatives of the first are focused mainly on the task, the second – on the relationship (Wolfram, et al., 2016). The task-oriented leader is more concerned on the work done properly. Relationships and feelings of followers do not interest him or her (Rubinowitz, 2016). Potential advantages of this style are the speed of decision-making, subordination to a common goal, and severe control over subordinates. On the other hand, a relationship-oriented leader, first of all, is interested in the feelings and the relationships that arise among the followers (Rubinowitz, 2016). He seeks to improve the efficiency of labor by enhancing human relations. Therefore, he or she encourages mutual assistance, allows subordinates to participate in the development of important decisions, takes into account the mood and the needs of workers, etc. Later, it was established that the style of some managers can be oriented simultaneously to work and a person.

Thus, the adherents of the situational approach believe that leadership is the product of a specific situation. The main idea of this approach is that an effective leader can assess the situation and adapt his behavior to it. The main situational variables are the needs and the personal qualities of subordinates and the nature of the assignment as well as the characteristics of the work and external environment (Rubinowitz, 2016). Situational theory does not negate the important role of individual qualities of personality but does not absolutize them; it rather gives priority to explaining the nature of leadership to circumstances. However, the situational theory of the assertion about the leading role of the situation in the formation of leadership is not fully confirmed (Wolfram, et al., 2016). This concept is sharply criticized for not adequately reflecting the leader’s activity, his or her ability to correctly and timely assess and change the situation, and find solutions to acute problems.

Why this Leadership Style or Approach Has Been Successful for Martin Luther King

There are numerous reasons why all the leadership skills, models, behaviors, and traits were successful for Martin Luther King. First and foremost, this is due to his own ability of anticipation. It means that he was capable of anticipating the expectation of good results and suggesting confidence in the possibility of realizing this foresight in practice to colleagues. Secondly, he successfully managed to inform the participants about the fulfillment of the tasks and goals he wanted to reach. It consists in a clear utterance of what needs to be done and how, particularly clarification of the assignment speaking in business language. This implies the intellectual stimulation of his followers (Wolfram, et al., 2016). Thirdly, there were some more important aspects that comprised the specific character of the communicative style of Martin Luther King, the charismatic leader, distinguished by the captivating timbre of the voice, intonations, a look directly into the eyes, an inspired expression on the face during a conversation with strong non-verbal techniques. The decisive factor in the charisma of a leader is his or her ability to influence the vision and the perception of reality on their value. Such leaders may even inspire new members to the group, but they usually emphasize on the particular importance of the individual values of each employee and seek to link them to group tasks (Rubinowitz, 2016). The success of the Martin Luther King’s attempts can be illustrated by the numerous changes in the involvement of representatives of Afro-American and white population in the governmental bodies (Graph 1). The number of Afro-Americans has increased twofold in the course of 10 years (1980 – 1990). Certainly, the years indicated are far from the beginning of the struggle for the civil rights, but they show the results of this effort. To be effective, leaders need to know and respect the needs, values and identities of the followers well. Only in this case, they can count on the trust of the members of the group, the formation of charisma and high group identification.

Considering Martin Luther King, the leader is strengthened by his personal enthusiasm for collective goals, his readiness to take personal risks for their achievement, and identification himself within the group. Most researchers agree that charisma is a special gift and cannot be learned, but there are some aspects of charismatic leadership that everyone can apply in practice. This is the use of personal power, the dedication to the common cause, the clear vision of the future, and the ability to take risks and act effectively in a situation of uncertainty (Rubinowitz, 2016). There is an opinion that a true charismatic leader does not aspire to superior positions at all. Leadership itself comes to him because everything is perceived by charisma (Rubinowitz, 2016). It is associated with such characteristics as intelligence and perseverance. At the same time, a moderately high intellect combined with high perseverance will achieve better results than a high intellect with less perseverance.

Finally, another particularity that helped Martin Luther King gain success and fame is his ability to make speeches. The speech of Martin Luther King is distinguished by high emotionality, clarity and transparency of the phrases’ structure, and a scattering of the structural and compositional unity of the whole text. In the presentation of the facts, the spatial, temporal and causal follow-up of events is noted. The logical harmony of the performance is ensured by its division into parts and their correlation with the main thesis of the struggle of the African Americans in the USA for justice, freedom, equality, and their civil rights (Rubinowitz, 2016). The general tone and style of speech is pathetic, agitated, simultaneously offensive, in some places lyrical, and very emotional, calling for victory in the struggle for the realization of the secret dream of freedom. Striving for the compositional stylistic unity of his speech, the political fighter for the civil rights of the Afro-Americans draws the necessary language constructs from different layers of the language and does it consciously, with selection (Rubinowitz, 2016). His vocabulary is neutral and, at the same time, stylistically colored. Different language colors make his speech clear, smooth and harmonious. To enhance emotionality, a variety of stylistic paths are often used. They are epithets, metaphors, comparisons, allegories, and other special means for decorating speech.

The leadership of Martin Luther King and its success is manifested above in the fact that the process of recruiting, training, moving to power and the very activities of political leaders are conducted within the framework of certain institutions, norms and organizations. The functions of leaders are limited to the separation of legislative, executive, judicial and information authorities, constitutions, and other legislative acts. In addition, leaders are selected and supported by their own followers and controlled by them, as well as by the opposition and the public. All this significantly limits their power and the maneuver capabilities and increases the influence of the environment on decision-making.


Leadership issues are key to achieving organizational effectiveness. On the one hand, leadership is viewed as having a certain set of qualities attributed to those who successfully influence others. On the other hand, it is the process of predominantly non-strong influence in the direction of achieving the group or organization’s goals. Approaches to leadership studies differ by a combination of three main variables that attract the attention of researchers. They are leadership qualities, leadership behavior and the situation in which the leader acts. An important role in this is played by the characteristics and the behavior of followers. Each approach offers its solution to the problem of effective leadership.

Martin Luther King brought in his situation a strong commitment to the principles of equality, the style of peaceful protest, and the great talent of the speaker. The situation gave him self-confidence, energy and many opportunities. His truly extraordinary achievements were the result not only of the strength of his personality but also of the interaction with the forces of the situation. Similarly to all of other people, “he had his strengths and weaknesses” (Manning, 2015, p. 52). As a common man, he shaped his actions and atmosphere by the condition that he experienced, thus creating the new society. The most important is the understanding of Martin Luther King’s need to act here and now, and not postpone for later. He was “deeply aware of the essence of human freedom, proclaimed already by the biblical prophets, Socrates, early Christians who courageously accepted violent death” (Manning, 2015, p. 52). Martin Luther King equally “rejected the extremes of both complacency and adaptations to segregation, and hatred and violence in the Afro-American environment” (Manning, 2015, p. 52). That is why Martin Luther King, the leader of the Afro-American civil rights movement in the US, also actively opposed the colonial aggression of the United States, particularly in Vietnam. For an important contribution to the democratization of American society, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Throughout the history of mankind, religion has always played an extremely important role in the management of society. At the same time, it is not a secret that religion itself is based on a set of certain archaic ideas hidden in mythological subjects and characters. Despite the fact that religion, undoubtedly, experienced a complicated path of transformation under the influence of a number of different external factors, it was still based on primordial archaic motifs. Religion, like the myth, never existed separately from the state and the society. It not only complemented but, in many ways, predetermined the vector of development of the latter.