Martin Luther King’s Legacy of Leadership


In the 27 years since the first observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the holiday has been a time to reflect on the civil rights hero’s role in leading a movement that inspired thousands of Americans to take action and bring about positive change. King’s legacy, in addition to serving as an inspirational story of one man’s ability to spread a message of tolerance and peace, also offers lessons about the qualities and responsibilities of an effective leader. 

Below, we share some examples of how King’s writings and teachings translate to models of leadership taught at McCombs and practiced in the business world.

The Power of Words

McCombs Management Professor James Fredrickson uses King’s writings, particularly his 1963 essay “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in his MBA Art of Leadership class. 

“It is very powerful and illustrates a lot of important leadership issues,” Fredrickson said of the letter. “It's a wonderful piece of writing, the language is vivid, and it is a great example of the role language can play in leadership.”

Several years ago, Fredrickson invited UT student actor Corey Jones to perform a dramatic reading of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for his MBA class. Then in 2010 Fredrickson took the concept a step further, staging a film version of the reading that he will screen for each of his MBA leadership classes going forward. View the full video below.

Lead With Love, Not Fear

McCombs Professor and former dean George Gau describes King as a “transformational leader” and draws heavily from his writings when teaching his Contemporary Leadership Issues course. Gau has his students read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — which he considers to be “the world’s greatest leadership writings” — and discuss it as a counterexample to “The Prince” by Machiavelli, which argues that fear is a more effective leadership quality than love.

The Austin Business Journal recently profiled Gau’s course in a column about why leading by love can be best for business.

Putting it into Practice

In 2012, career coach and Texas Enterprise contributor Elizabeth A. Bert wrote an article titled “Leadership by Example: 7 Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” In it, she outlines several principals exemplified in King’s leadership of the civil rights movement that also apply to today’s business leaders.

Below are some excerpts from Bert’s article; you can read the full version here.

“Leaders communicate a concrete vision of the future with a clear call to action to inspire others to get there. People want to follow someone who they know is going somewhere.”

“Courageous leaders do what's right, not what's easiest, and focus on the good of the many over the good of one.”

“The self-sacrifice of rigorous study offers valuable insights to differing points of view and builds character.”

“Wholeheartedly showing someone you believe in him is the simplest, most powerful thing you can do to bring out his best. Leaders have faith in not only in themselves but others.”


About The Author

Rob Heidrick

Writer, McCombs School of Business

Born and raised in Austin, writer Rob Heidrick has spent several years as a contributor and editor at local magazines and community newspapers. He...

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