Summary of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Leadership

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Martin Luther King, Jr. on Leadership book summary




  • Background
  • Eloquent
  • Inspiring


Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech was voted the most electrifying public address of the 20th century. It takes a special leader to give that kind of speech. In an overview of the history of the civil rights struggle, Donald T. Phillips presents the ideals of leadership that Martin Luther King Jr. followed. Phillips describes the techniques King used at various stages of the civil rights battle. He also shares King’s comments on leadership. Many of the principles will be quite familiar: listen to learn, lead by being led, awaken direct action, encourage creativity and involve the people. However, the book is fascinating when it demonstrates how King put these principles into practice. This well-organized, well-written book is clear, direct and easy to read. While it is written for the general public (especially for black people and those interested in civil rights), getAbstract finds this book applicable for all managers and executives, particularly those who like to learn the lessons of history.


  • A good leader uses influence and persuasion to win the hearts of the people.
  • The “force of love” is a powerful tool for social change.
  • A key to leadership is listening and learning.
  • Seek to persuade through “love, patience and understanding.”
  • Don’t try to defeat or humiliate your opponent. Rather, seek “friendship and understanding” to produce a “transformation and change of heart.”
  • You must create formal alliances with other groups and involve people at every step in whatever you do.
  • Set goals and create a plan of action.
  • Seek dialogue and negotiation to achieve your goals.
  • “Create a blueprint for yourself” so you “become your own teacher.”
  • Be ready to change and adapt your plans through being creative and innovative.


Birth of a Leader

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership continues to inspire the United States’ civil rights movement, which is still building on his legacy. The movement developed as a reaction to centuries of slavery. After prolonged argument, the U.S. Founding Fathers chose not to address slavery when they signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. By 1820, “the peculiar institution” was largely confined to the South. The federal government officially abolished slavery after the Civil War, but racial discrimination continued. Segregationists developed separate schools and other facilities for whites and blacks, and discouraged blacks from voting. Vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized and killed blacks who attempted to show any leadership.

“When leaders listen first, then speak, they are engendering trust in those who would follow.”

Two key events in the 1950s triggered the civil rights movement in the United States, and spurred King’s involvement. In 1954, the Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision, affirming that “separate but equal” had no place in education. And in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, setting off the famous Montgomery bus boycott. At the time, King was a preacher at the local Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He was asked to head the new group that was leading the boycott, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The boycott organizers chose King as a compromise candidate, because he was new in town and was not tied to any particular group or agenda.

“When people nominate you for the lead, accept it. When you are asked to serve, you can’t say no.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

The struggle soon became national, and King became an international celebrity. At the same time, other civil rights groups began organizing their own bus protests around the South. In 1957, King led a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom with two other black leaders – A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The following year, he organized a new alliance – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – to lead a national program for voter registration. Soon, he left his ministry to become its full-time leader.

“In the end, the only real power a leader may possess is the power to persuade – largely because the majority of people simply will not support a dictator.”

The SCLC provided the springboard for King’s leadership during the next 10 years, until his death. He based his leadership in a strong commitment to nonviolence, inspired by Mohandas Gandhi of India, and led many marches to protest segregation in restaurants, schools and other public places. He also spearheaded voter registration drives, which attracted national interest. As a result, King helped break down discrimination and open the doors of equality. Sadly, he attracted many enemies among those who resisted change, and one of them assassinated him on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

Preparing for Leadership

When King led the bus boycott and later the national civil rights movement, he used the following key strategies. They helped the movement succeed, while at the same time securing his own leadership position:

  • Set goals and create a plan of action – King and his organization created a specific blueprint for a long-term boycott of the bus system in Montgomery.
  • Create a new formal alliance – Organizers set up a new entity, King’s Montgomery Improvement Association, to administer the boycott.
  • Involve the people – The MIA involved people through a series of meetings, at which Rosa Parks appeared as a “great heroine” to tell her story.
  • Seek dialogue and negotiation – Organizers stood firm to break down the resistance of those who were unwilling to negotiate.
  • Innovate – MIA set up alternate means of transportation, so black people could boycott the local bus service until their proposal for change was accepted.
“In general, great leaders anticipate setbacks. They expect to make mistakes because they understand that when an individual is out front making things happen, events will not always turn out perfectly.”

Later, King used these key strategies when he led other demonstrations and protests. He listened, and led by being led. King wanted to understand his followers’ desires fully. Listening enabled him to develop rapport and helped people trust him as a leader.

King reminded people of the principles they were fighting for and stressed that they were engaged in a struggle between justice and injustice. He urged them not to back down, even if they were afraid. He also committed himself completely to the goal. “Once you make up your mind that you are giving yourself,” he said, “you must be prepared to do anything that serves your cause. You must give yourself fully.”

Love, Nonviolence and Learning

In the early phases of his leadership, King made a series of other commitments that helped him succeed. One was a commitment to “nonviolent direct action,” in which he combined Christian values with ideas he had learned from observing Gandhi. He based this approach on Gandhi’s teaching that “the force of love is the same as the force of soul or truth.” King also heeded the Christian philosophy of turning the other cheek. He believed that love was a powerful tool for “social and collective transformation.”

“Leaders...move others by caring, by inspiring and by persuading.”

However, he didn’t order a nonviolent approach, since he realized he had to convince others to follow him of their own will. He had to help them understand the ideal and show them why it had merit. He realized that to be an effective leader, you have to persuade, not dictate. He also demonstrated that you shouldn’t try to defeat or humiliate your opponent. Rather, you want to “win [his or her] friendship and understanding” in order to bring a “transformation and change of heart.”

“Leaders have a bias for action and a sense of urgency that are centered around shared goals.”

King learned from his mistakes, such as the failure of a sit-in to test the new U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission rules to desegregate passenger trains. However, after an economic boycott in Albany, Georgia, led to a rock-throwing confrontation, King renewed his determination to use nonviolence. He resolved to plan better in the future. After every demonstration, he conducted a careful self-analysis so he could do better the next time. As he gained more knowledge and experience, he became more confident. He applied the maxim that “learning and leadership go hand in hand.” He recognized that you must be ready to change as circumstances warrant and that you must communicate continually to maintain the support of your people. He shows that you must be willing to make mistakes and learn from them.

“The desire for lifetime learning common to many creative leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr.) also fosters an equally strong tendency to listen. That’s because listening and learning go together.”

Early on, King also recognized the need to become a good public speaker. Initially, he spent a great deal of time organizing and preparing his sermons and speeches. However, with experience, he was able to speak extemporaneously with even more power. A key to this ability was discovering that it is much easier to be a good speaker when you speak in a common language. Telling stories is another way to add freshness and creativity.

Guiding and Expanding

As the movement expanded, King developed and used additional leadership skills. For example, when he was arrested in 1960 after leading a sit-in in Atlanta, he was willing to stay in jail as long as necessary rather than pay a $500 bond he thought was unjust. He used the following four general strategies to motivate, inspire and persuade people to act:

  1. Placing events in context – King placed the vision and goals of his organization in the context of history. He showed how the United States’ civil rights movement was part of a much broader, unfinished struggle that began with the “incomplete revolution of the Civil War.” He placed the civil rights movement in a larger “journey toward the goals” reflected in the Declaration of Independence. Repeatedly, he told everyone it was time to “wake up.”
  2. Appealing to ethics and morality – King used the powerful themes of “brotherhood, justice, human rights and human dignity” in his speeches, writings and conversations. He urged people to act based on the “highest standards of ethics and morality.” This was very attractive to many people, because it appealed to their basic sense of right and wrong.
  3. Disseminating facts and advocating specific initiatives – King pointed to specific examples of injustice and recommended solutions – such as when he appealed personally to President John F. Kennedy to urge desegregation of public schools.
  4. Providing ongoing encouragement and setting a good example – For instance, King went to jail with other protesters and turned the other cheek when a man punched him.
“Connecting with people is something at which all leaders must excel if they are to be successful.”

At the same time, King continued some of the approaches he had used in the early phases of the struggle. For instance, he encouraged creativity and innovation – using the concept of nonviolent resistance on an even more massive scale, and organizing many strategic marches on city halls, police stations, libraries and lunch counters. He continued to involve everyone in creating alliances and promoting teamwork and diversity. For instance, he created ties to the National Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Summer Community Organization and Political Education Project, and other groups. He found many key advantages to alliance building. He demonstrated that people gain power and strength when they work in formal organizations rather than alone. Forming groups also expands workers’ contacts and networks of communication.

“When you are confronted with violence, stand up to it. Meet hate with love.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

King set additional goals with a detailed plan of action. For example, in Birmingham in 1962, he developed a precise timetable for action, along with specific methods and techniques – including mass meetings, boycotts, sit-ins, mass marches and enough arrests to fill up the jails. As he said: “A wise leader plans before taking action...goals unify people...goals motivate people...goals stimulate action.”

“Create a blueprint for yourself – one that you can utilize in your future leadership endeavors. Become your own teacher.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

Recognizing the need for decisiveness, King used these four steps in the decision-making process:

  1. Obtain key information and understand all the facts involved.
  2. Consider a variety of possible solutions and their consequences.
  3. Be certain that the action you are considering is consistent with your objectives.
  4. Effectively communicate the decision you have made and then implement it.
“Your aim should be to persuade through love, patience and understanding.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

King was successful at motivating people to action for many reasons. He was good at teaching and preaching. He marched with the people. He knew how and when to negotiate and compromise. He understood human nature. He preached hope and compassion. He had the courage to lead even when there were potential dangers ahead. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired people with his dream. He explained, “Power is the ability to achieve purpose...As a leader, you must move past indecision to action.”

About the Author

Donald T. Phillips, a widely recognized writer and speaker in the field of leadership, draws upon the lessons of history for the strategies of today. His previous books include Lincoln on Leadership and The Founding Fathers on Leadership.

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