Our Universities: Deep Leadership Principles from a Birmingham Jail

Position, profit, and power are too frequently both seed corn and fruit of exercised leadership.  Purpose, passion, and perseverance ignite the fires of leadership, consuming the old and creating the new.

For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Jesus Christ
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Occasionally, leadership is so vibrant that it changes the world. In the 20th century, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had a seminal impact on our nation. Vestiges of his leadership values appear in an April 16, 1963 epistle entitled, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  The circumstances around this letter are important and should never be forgotten, but will not be rehearsed here. Rather, in recognition of King’s illustrious leadership abilities in the face of difficulties nearly unimaginable to many in the 21st century, highlighting principles of leadership espoused in this letter might prove useful for people in leadership positions — in government, public service, education, industry, commerce, and families.

Here are five principles:

Recognition of High Purpose: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  All effective leaders are called to action in service to something larger than self. Social units from families to nations are guided by the recognition that an outpouring of service through leadership profoundly affects those led.

Communication of the Importance of the Work at Hand:  For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” There is in all valuable leadership a sense of urgency. It must be real rather than manufactured. It must be clear to any thinking human being. It must for these reasons be of the utmost importance and the highest necessity.

Commitment in Spite of Personal Cost:One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’” A common failing of contemporary leadership, whether in a family, or a nation, is a recurring sense that leadership serves itself.  Such leadership becomes the ultimate expression of greed rather than generosity. Leadership requires tilling new soil, taking an organization where it has not been, or has had difficulty going, in spite of the cost to the leader.  Sometimes such leadership is seen as radicalism, when instead it may be the most profound statement of moral purpose that an individual can make.

Challenging Predispositions: Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Because leadership requires a new path, it simultaneously must confront the well-worn path of the status quo.  Such patchwork requires something much stronger than indifference to the way things are, and a basic rejection of the concepts that keep an organization the way it is. We see in political circles a consistent and disturbing unwillingness to change a course of action, and comfort with how things are in spite of the fact that things don’t work. As Dr. King suggested the greatest sin is “lukewarm acceptance.”

Willingness to Criticize “The Family”: I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”  People in groups that need and demand leadership must accept criticism and question what has gone before. The people who must be willing to stand most sturdily the call of leadership are those closest to the center of the group, for “the family” resists change stridently.

Martin Luther King Jr. displayed genius-like abilities to understand leadership immersed in society’s most vexing questions. He was uniquely predisposed by experience, birth, and by a willingness to follow his God, to be a pivotal social force of the 20th century.

Our universities similarly demand a form of leadership that demonstrates this same kind of commitment and passion towards purpose. Without insight seats of learning will stumble into the mid 21st century.

For the complete text of King’s letter please see: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

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