We need more leaders who possess Dr. King’s seven C’s to guide us along the enduring path to universal equality, freedom, and justice.
Lonnie T. Brown, Jr.
Dean & Elvin E. Overton Distinguished Professor of Law
It is no exaggeration that Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the greatest leaders ever. His revered status and seismic accomplishments are a direct product of his seemingly innate ability to lead. For example, his foresight, guidance, and tenacity were indispensable in achieving passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — two pieces of legislation that transformed the legal landscape of our nation.On a broader scale, Dr. King instilled hope and self-esteem in people who had long felt powerless and subjugated in American society. His leadership itself inspired racial pride, through his actions and his words. There was an aura about him that made others want to listen and follow.
In reflecting on Dr. King as a leader, I identified seven qualities he possessed that represent a veritable blueprint for highly effective leadership. Interestingly, they all begin with the letter “C,” which should make them easy to remember:
(1) Charisma– Dr. King had a compelling charm that inspired devotion in others. He was a charismatic orator who could move people with his words in a way that few could. But he was also interpersonally charismatic. People liked Dr. King, and this personal affection enhanced his ability to lead.
(2) Confidence – Dr. King carried himself with an air of self-assuredness. Today this might be referred to as swagger. He actually knew what he was doing, but even if he didn’t, he sure acted like he did, and that confidence or swagger engendered confidence in others. People want to follow a leader who is confident, not one who seems timid or wracked with uncertainty.
(3) Courage – Dr. King evinced courage in the face of dangers that would make most whither. He lived his short life with the perpetual specter of death lurking. The potential for assassination—his ultimate fate—was ever present. However, Dr. King never let fear distract him from the mission at hand. He literally lived in the shadow of death, yet seemingly feared no evil. Leaders who are afraid (or at least appear to be afraid) cannot lead successfully.
(4) Calmness – This is an important compliment to confidence and courage. Dr. King invariably exhibited the quality of equanimity—when faced with stressful situations or difficult decisions, he remained calm. Indeed, his whole approach to civil rights revolved around this notion of calmness and equanimity. Leaders who become rattled under pressure or who panic when an unexpected crisis arises will lose the confidence and support of their followers.
(5) Conviction – Dr. King had a profound belief in the morality and necessity of the civil rights cause. He also felt the same way about his strategy of nonviolent resistance. Violence was never the answer for him. He was unwavering in his conviction.
(6) Commitment – As a leader, Dr. King was committed. No matter what the obstacles or setbacks, he persevered. He was passionately devoted to effecting meaningful change, and he knew that this was only possible through sustained commitment. Many urged him to go slower, to be more patient. He could have easily done so. However, he knew that if he did, nothing would change. As a result, he adhered to his plan and pressed for change now, not eventually.
(7) Certainty – Dr. King was certain that things could and would get better. This might also be referred to as optimism. The civil rights movement faced challenges and failures, but Dr. King always emphasized that a brighter time was on the horizon, a time when there would be true equality and justice for all. This does not mean that he was overly idealistic. He understood the reality of America and did not sugarcoat this for his followers. He was simply not willing to be daunted or deterred by the existing societal state.
Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and in his acceptance speech, he exhibited profound certainty and optimism about the future of America: “I accept this award today with an abidingfaith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”
His certainty persisted until the very end of his life. In his final speech on April 3, 1968—the day before his assassination—Dr. King ominously, but hopefully stated: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
These seven qualities—charisma, confidence, courage, calmness, conviction, commitment, and certainty—are an extremely potent combination for a leader. However, even possessing all seven is not enough, without a well-defined objective and strategy. Dr. King had these as well.
His objectives were equality, freedom, and justice for Black people. But more broadly, he longed for America to be a country in which race would not be a factor for anyone in terms of how they were viewed or treated. It is important to emphasize that this did not mean that Dr. King was striving for a so-called colorblind society. We are all different in a host of ways, and he believed that we should acknowledge, appreciate, and embrace those differences. That is the recipe for true equality, freedom, and justice.
Dr. King’s strategy revolved around nonviolence, but he believed in “direct action” not placidity. He was criticized for this direct-action component of his approach, especially by fellow members of the clergy. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail,Dr. King responded:
“Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. (Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963))
Although over time, many within the movement began to question Dr. King’s strategy and advocated for a more confrontational style, he remained steadfast in his views. Not only did he consider nonviolence to be morally superior, but he also believed it was more likely to achieve the movement’s objectives.
Dr. King may or may not have been right. Clearly, we, as a society, are still not where he hoped we would be by this point. If he had lived, maybe he would have altered his strategy. We will never know. One fact, though, is undeniable. We need more leaders who possess Dr. King’s seven C’s to guide us along the enduring path to universal equality, freedom, and justice.