Leadership Lessons from a Young Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the Montgomery Bus Boycott starts in the 1950s, the young Martin Luther King, Jr. faces challenges to his leadership goals, strategic vision, and personal and family safety. Professor Bill George discusses King’s early years and how they shaped his ability to respond with courage at his crucible moment—and how leaders today can find the strength to do the same.

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“And 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. So, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Brian Kenny: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered those remarks in a now famous speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968. Everyone present felt the power of his words, but no one could have known just how prescient they were. The following evening, at 6:01, Dr. King was assassinated outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. Although he was just 39-years-old at the time of his death, the autopsy revealed that he had the heart of a 60-year-old. Thirteen years leading the civil rights movement, suppressing the fear that accompanied daily threats of violence towards him and his family, had clearly taken its toll.

Today, we'll hear from Professor Bill George about his case entitled Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Young Minister Confronts the Challenges of Montgomery. I'm your host, Brian Kenny, and you're listening to Cold Call.

Bill George is an expert on leadership, a topic that he teaches and writes about extensively, including numerous books, articles, and business cases. He's also the former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic, and he's the author of this really wonderful case that we're going to discuss today. Bill, thanks for joining us.

Bill George: Thank you, Brian.

Kenny: I can't imagine there's anybody listening who isn't familiar with the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. He's obviously one of the icons of American history, and all of the contributions that he made to our country. But, I've learned a lot from reading the case about his background and kind of what was maybe behind the scenes that people didn't know about him. I would ask you maybe just to set the stage for us, how does the case begin, Bill?

George: The case is set about 12 years before that Mountaintop speech, back in January of 1956. This is about two months after the famous incident with Rosa Parks, when she refused to move to the back of the bus. That led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, where Dr. King was nominated four days later as the president. He was only 26-years-old, a very young man to say the least.

Martin Luther King Jr. at a 1964 press conference. Source: By Marion S. Trikosko, via Wikimedia Commons

But, he is in a fearful place. He has just gotten a death threat on his phone, using the N-word, telling him to get out of town. He says he gets about 30 or 40 death threats a day in those days. So, it was a very, very rough time in Montgomery, Alabama. I went to Georgia Tech in the early 60s, and it was a little bit better by then, and certainly better in Atlanta than it was in Alabama. But, a rough time for everyone, and certainly for any African American.

Kenny: So, he's turning this invitation over in his mind and thinking about the implications. I'm curious, Bill…what prompted you to write a case about Martin Luther King?

"He actually gets down on his knees and prays, and asks God to let him off the hook"

George: Well, at the time, I was introducing my new course Authentic Leadership Development, and one of the things we talk a lot about are crucibles that people face. Dr. King at this time was facing perhaps the greatest crucible of his life that set the stage for everything that followed. You know, he actually had no intention of being a civil rights leader. His desire was to be a great minister, and he had been extremely well schooled, certainly for an African American in those days. He'd gone to Morehouse College at the age of 15. By the way, my [HBS] colleague David Thomas just became the new president of Morehouse.

He had gone on from there to Crozer Theological Seminary, then elected to go north to Boston University to get his PhD, a very famous school at that time as well. He had married Coretta Scott and had a daughter. But, his great goal was to take over daddy King's church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and he had no idea of being a civil rights leader. He was thrust into this. He said if he had more time to think about it he would have said, "No way I can do this, I'm just a minister." But, he got asked to do this.

So, at the time of the case, he is fearful, afraid of what's to come and pleading with God to let him off the hook because he says, "I have no courage, I am weak, and I want to get out of here. I just can't do this."

Kenny: You mention his father, what was his childhood life like? What were the sort of things that shaped him?

George: He grew up in a middle class environment, so he had a reasonably good environment. His mother taught him self-respect, his father was a strict disciplinarian who would engage in whippings in those days. But, at age six, he was playing with a white friend of his, and his parents told him, "You can't play with my son ever again." He said he resolved, at that point, to hate all white people. Then, his parents said, "No, no. You don't understand. You're a Christian and that's not what Christians do. We love our enemies, we love people, and you must change your point of view."

So, that was a very positive environment he grew up in. But, meanwhile, around him, there was a tremendous amount of racism.

Kenny: You mention the fact that he went to college at a young age, but he talks about the fact that when he got there, even though he had graduated from high school, he was only reading at an eighth grade level.

George: That’s right. He had some very famous teachers: Dr. Benjamin Mays, Dr. George Kelsey. Mays was then president of Morehouse, but they all became mentors to him, and they were ministers that really encouraged him to serve humanity through the ministry.

Kenny: They also encouraged him to continue his education, which was highly unusual at that time, right?

George: Well, certainly for a minister as well. I mean, if an African American was fortunate enough to get into medical school or law school, probably in the north, that was one thing, but ministers ... And he almost didn't want to go into ministry because he saw most African American ministers were not educated, and he was a real scholar. His sermons are filled with great depth of biblical knowledge, and he had really become quite famous, well before he got to Montgomery, for speaking around the country at Baptist churches.

Kenny: I think it's also interesting because the case starts to shine a light on the person that was Dr. King, and some of his own insecurities. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the insecurities and the fears that he had, that maybe led to his crucible moment?

George: Well, remember he'd gone from Morehouse, which was a historically black college, to Crozer, which was predominantly white, as was Boston University. There were just a handful of blacks there. In a sense, he felt he had to do everything perfectly. He had to show up on time, he had to be well prepared, he had to do much better than his fellow white students in order to be accepted, and so he was extremely careful to do those things and not get himself in any kind of trouble, or not fall short. In some ways, I think he felt like he was a role model for other African Americans who might follow in his footsteps.

Kenny: Of course, we know he didn't do all of this alone. Coretta Scott King was a hugely important influence on him. What made them such a good team, and I wonder could he have been as successful without somebody like Coretta Scott King kind of pushing him from behind?

George: I think perhaps not. She was a great partner for Dr. King. She was a scholar in her own right, she had studied music, had a great singing voice. She basically gave up her career to support him in going to Montgomery, and she was a real partner. But, he always said she was the stronger of the two. He felt he was weak and that she was the one that would stand behind him and give him the strength to take on these leadership roles.

The crucible we speak of here, Brian, is really a turning point in his life, which he had to make the call: did he stay in the ministry as a minister in churches, or did he use his ministry as a calling to help African Americans and attack the problem of racism? He actually gets down on his knees and prays, and asks God to let him off the hook and not have to do that. He said, "I just can't take it alone." I think he knew he needed his support from above as well as from his wife, Coretta, to go forward into this very troubled, very violent environment.

Kenny:In your experience, having talked and worked with leaders of all kinds, how common is that? My guess is that most leaders aren't able to do it alone and they need somebody to help them, and they need to be willing to accept help from other people.

George: Exactly. Particularly, a lot of people try to act like they can do everything themselves, but they need help. The higher up you go in leadership, the lonelier it gets, the fewer people you can talk to, the fewer people you can look to for support, and you need that support team around you. But, I've found, Brian, that almost every great leader goes through these crucible moments, like Nelson Mandela did, even Jim Burke and Tylenol, the second time around, was very fearful. You don't know what's happening, and you need people around you to support you and be there for you, or to give you the courage to step up. Perhaps not be shot at like Dr. King was, or put in jail for 27 years like Mandela was, but certainly to be attacked and criticized from all sides. That takes enormous courage, which really is a distinguishing characteristic of great leaders like Dr. King.

Kenny: Even in the excerpt that we at the opening of the podcast here, he was very fearful, right up until literally hours before he was assassinated, but he was able to overcome those fears and kind of push forward, and I guess compartmentalize that kind of thing. You know, as we look around the world today, I'm wondering are there people who are able to step up and play that kind of a role?

George: Well, in the business community today we have leaders with enormous courage. As you know, we have a very powerful president of the United States, and we have people that are willing to stand up to him and do the right thing by their companies. I'm thinking somebody like Mary Barra at General Motors, where they've said you can't have a supply chain that goes around the world. Well, she's plunging full speed ahead and doing just that.

"He felt he was weak and that [Coretta] was the one that would stand behind him and give him the strength to take on these leadership roles"

In the UK, Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, was attacked by the Brazilian firm 3G--tried to take him over. He has been the great advocate for sustainability. I read his posts every day, he has not backed off one bit because he knows how important this is and he believes very deeply that companies that do the right thing by sustainability will perform better.

So yes, I think we have a lot of business leaders. Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo is another one. Alan Mulally who was at Ford. We have some leaders of great courage today, and I am very encouraged by the kind of leaders we're turning out in the business community, that have risen to the top and realized their role goes well beyond making the numbers to satisfy their shareholders, but they have to do something to really make a difference in the world, through the power that's vested in them with their companies.

So it's quite analogous to Dr. King and what he did.

Kenny: That's great to hear. It gives me more confidence, I guess, going forward. So, you've discussed this in class, I'm guessing, with both MBA students and probably executive education participants. How do people react to reading about Dr. King?

George: Well, they're very moved. Of course, I try to put this issue back to them. When have you faced a situation where you were scared, you wanted to get out, and wanted to be let off the hook for your leadership roles? Are you prepared for this, and how prepared are you? I think that's a really important thing, not just to think about it like a great leader, like Dr. King, but let's take it down to ourselves, and how does it affect me.

All of us have had a crucible. I've had students tell me that they too were not allowed to play with white children in their neighborhood, and how crushed they were, and how they carried that with them until they were at HBS, which was 20 years later, and how impactful that seemingly simple experience was. So, these things are very formative in peoples' lives, and I think it's important that our students at HBS, and other people studying business, get prepared when they do have to step up to the big one. Because if they aren't prepared for the ones that come earlier in life, they will not be prepared when they get the really big challenge.

Kenny: Really, really great lessons, Bill, and a terrific case. Thank you for discussing it with us.

George: Well, thank you for giving me this opportunity. I am thrilled that we are honoring Dr. King every year on the anniversary of his birthday, because what could be more important? What a great leader he is, and we need to venerate the great leaders of our time, like Dr. King.

Kenny: You can find the Martin Luther King, Jr. case, along with thousands of others, in the HBS case collection at hbr.org. I'm your host, Brian Kenny, and you've been listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

Recorded on January 10, 2018. Transcript edited for length and clarity.

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“And 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. So, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Brian Kenny: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered those remarks in a now famous speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968. Everyone present felt the power of his words, but no one could have known just how prescient they were. The following evening, at 6:01, Dr. King was assassinated outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. Although he was just 39-years-old at the time of his death, the autopsy revealed that he had the heart of a 60-year-old. Thirteen years leading the civil rights movement, suppressing the fear that accompanied daily threats of violence towards him and his family, had clearly taken its toll.

Today, we'll hear from Professor Bill George about his case entitled Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Young Minister Confronts the Challenges of Montgomery. I'm your host, Brian Kenny, and you're listening to Cold Call.

Bill George is an expert on leadership, a topic that he teaches and writes about extensively, including numerous books, articles, and business cases. He's also the former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic, and he's the author of this really wonderful case that we're going to discuss today. Bill, thanks for joining us.

Bill George: Thank you, Brian.

Kenny: I can't imagine there's anybody listening who isn't familiar with the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. He's obviously one of the icons of American history, and all of the contributions that he made to our country. But, I've learned a lot from reading the case about his background and kind of what was maybe behind the scenes that people didn't know about him. I would ask you maybe just to set the stage for us, how does the case begin, Bill?

George: The case is set about 12 years before that Mountaintop speech, back in January of 1956. This is about two months after the famous incident with Rosa Parks, when she refused to move to the back of the bus. That led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, where Dr. King was nominated four days later as the president. He was only 26-years-old, a very young man to say the least.

Martin Luther King Jr. at a 1964 press conference. Source: By Marion S. Trikosko, via Wikimedia Commons

But, he is in a fearful place. He has just gotten a death threat on his phone, using the N-word, telling him to get out of town. He says he gets about 30 or 40 death threats a day in those days. So, it was a very, very rough time in Montgomery, Alabama. I went to Georgia Tech in the early 60s, and it was a little bit better by then, and certainly better in Atlanta than it was in Alabama. But, a rough time for everyone, and certainly for any African American.

Kenny: So, he's turning this invitation over in his mind and thinking about the implications. I'm curious, Bill…what prompted you to write a case about Martin Luther King?

"He actually gets down on his knees and prays, and asks God to let him off the hook"

George: Well, at the time, I was introducing my new course Authentic Leadership Development, and one of the things we talk a lot about are crucibles that people face. Dr. King at this time was facing perhaps the greatest crucible of his life that set the stage for everything that followed. You know, he actually had no intention of being a civil rights leader. His desire was to be a great minister, and he had been extremely well schooled, certainly for an African American in those days. He'd gone to Morehouse College at the age of 15. By the way, my [HBS] colleague David Thomas just became the new president of Morehouse.

He had gone on from there to Crozer Theological Seminary, then elected to go north to Boston University to get his PhD, a very famous school at that time as well. He had married Coretta Scott and had a daughter. But, his great goal was to take over daddy King's church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and he had no idea of being a civil rights leader. He was thrust into this. He said if he had more time to think about it he would have said, "No way I can do this, I'm just a minister." But, he got asked to do this.

So, at the time of the case, he is fearful, afraid of what's to come and pleading with God to let him off the hook because he says, "I have no courage, I am weak, and I want to get out of here. I just can't do this."

Kenny: You mention his father, what was his childhood life like? What were the sort of things that shaped him?

George: He grew up in a middle class environment, so he had a reasonably good environment. His mother taught him self-respect, his father was a strict disciplinarian who would engage in whippings in those days. But, at age six, he was playing with a white friend of his, and his parents told him, "You can't play with my son ever again." He said he resolved, at that point, to hate all white people. Then, his parents said, "No, no. You don't understand. You're a Christian and that's not what Christians do. We love our enemies, we love people, and you must change your point of view."

So, that was a very positive environment he grew up in. But, meanwhile, around him, there was a tremendous amount of racism.

Kenny: You mention the fact that he went to college at a young age, but he talks about the fact that when he got there, even though he had graduated from high school, he was only reading at an eighth grade level.

George: That’s right. He had some very famous teachers: Dr. Benjamin Mays, Dr. George Kelsey. Mays was then president of Morehouse, but they all became mentors to him, and they were ministers that really encouraged him to serve humanity through the ministry.

Kenny: They also encouraged him to continue his education, which was highly unusual at that time, right?

George: Well, certainly for a minister as well. I mean, if an African American was fortunate enough to get into medical school or law school, probably in the north, that was one thing, but ministers ... And he almost didn't want to go into ministry because he saw most African American ministers were not educated, and he was a real scholar. His sermons are filled with great depth of biblical knowledge, and he had really become quite famous, well before he got to Montgomery, for speaking around the country at Baptist churches.

Kenny: I think it's also interesting because the case starts to shine a light on the person that was Dr. King, and some of his own insecurities. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the insecurities and the fears that he had, that maybe led to his crucible moment?

George: Well, remember he'd gone from Morehouse, which was a historically black college, to Crozer, which was predominantly white, as was Boston University. There were just a handful of blacks there. In a sense, he felt he had to do everything perfectly. He had to show up on time, he had to be well prepared, he had to do much better than his fellow white students in order to be accepted, and so he was extremely careful to do those things and not get himself in any kind of trouble, or not fall short. In some ways, I think he felt like he was a role model for other African Americans who might follow in his footsteps.

Kenny: Of course, we know he didn't do all of this alone. Coretta Scott King was a hugely important influence on him. What made them such a good team, and I wonder could he have been as successful without somebody like Coretta Scott King kind of pushing him from behind?

George: I think perhaps not. She was a great partner for Dr. King. She was a scholar in her own right, she had studied music, had a great singing voice. She basically gave up her career to support him in going to Montgomery, and she was a real partner. But, he always said she was the stronger of the two. He felt he was weak and that she was the one that would stand behind him and give him the strength to take on these leadership roles.

The crucible we speak of here, Brian, is really a turning point in his life, which he had to make the call: did he stay in the ministry as a minister in churches, or did he use his ministry as a calling to help African Americans and attack the problem of racism? He actually gets down on his knees and prays, and asks God to let him off the hook and not have to do that. He said, "I just can't take it alone." I think he knew he needed his support from above as well as from his wife, Coretta, to go forward into this very troubled, very violent environment.

Kenny:In your experience, having talked and worked with leaders of all kinds, how common is that? My guess is that most leaders aren't able to do it alone and they need somebody to help them, and they need to be willing to accept help from other people.

George: Exactly. Particularly, a lot of people try to act like they can do everything themselves, but they need help. The higher up you go in leadership, the lonelier it gets, the fewer people you can talk to, the fewer people you can look to for support, and you need that support team around you. But, I've found, Brian, that almost every great leader goes through these crucible moments, like Nelson Mandela did, even Jim Burke and Tylenol, the second time around, was very fearful. You don't know what's happening, and you need people around you to support you and be there for you, or to give you the courage to step up. Perhaps not be shot at like Dr. King was, or put in jail for 27 years like Mandela was, but certainly to be attacked and criticized from all sides. That takes enormous courage, which really is a distinguishing characteristic of great leaders like Dr. King.

Kenny: Even in the excerpt that we at the opening of the podcast here, he was very fearful, right up until literally hours before he was assassinated, but he was able to overcome those fears and kind of push forward, and I guess compartmentalize that kind of thing. You know, as we look around the world today, I'm wondering are there people who are able to step up and play that kind of a role?

George: Well, in the business community today we have leaders with enormous courage. As you know, we have a very powerful president of the United States, and we have people that are willing to stand up to him and do the right thing by their companies. I'm thinking somebody like Mary Barra at General Motors, where they've said you can't have a supply chain that goes around the world. Well, she's plunging full speed ahead and doing just that.

"He felt he was weak and that [Coretta] was the one that would stand behind him and give him the strength to take on these leadership roles"

In the UK, Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, was attacked by the Brazilian firm 3G--tried to take him over. He has been the great advocate for sustainability. I read his posts every day, he has not backed off one bit because he knows how important this is and he believes very deeply that companies that do the right thing by sustainability will perform better.

So yes, I think we have a lot of business leaders. Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo is another one. Alan Mulally who was at Ford. We have some leaders of great courage today, and I am very encouraged by the kind of leaders we're turning out in the business community, that have risen to the top and realized their role goes well beyond making the numbers to satisfy their shareholders, but they have to do something to really make a difference in the world, through the power that's vested in them with their companies.

So it's quite analogous to Dr. King and what he did.

Kenny: That's great to hear. It gives me more confidence, I guess, going forward. So, you've discussed this in class, I'm guessing, with both MBA students and probably executive education participants. How do people react to reading about Dr. King?

George: Well, they're very moved. Of course, I try to put this issue back to them. When have you faced a situation where you were scared, you wanted to get out, and wanted to be let off the hook for your leadership roles? Are you prepared for this, and how prepared are you? I think that's a really important thing, not just to think about it like a great leader, like Dr. King, but let's take it down to ourselves, and how does it affect me.

All of us have had a crucible. I've had students tell me that they too were not allowed to play with white children in their neighborhood, and how crushed they were, and how they carried that with them until they were at HBS, which was 20 years later, and how impactful that seemingly simple experience was. So, these things are very formative in peoples' lives, and I think it's important that our students at HBS, and other people studying business, get prepared when they do have to step up to the big one. Because if they aren't prepared for the ones that come earlier in life, they will not be prepared when they get the really big challenge.

Kenny: Really, really great lessons, Bill, and a terrific case. Thank you for discussing it with us.

George: Well, thank you for giving me this opportunity. I am thrilled that we are honoring Dr. King every year on the anniversary of his birthday, because what could be more important? What a great leader he is, and we need to venerate the great leaders of our time, like Dr. King.

Kenny: You can find the Martin Luther King, Jr. case, along with thousands of others, in the HBS case collection at hbr.org. I'm your host, Brian Kenny, and you've been listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

Recorded on January 10, 2018. Transcript edited for length and clarity.

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