As Black History Month winds down, we are reminded of the epic leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--a single man who changed the course of history and forced a moral awakening across the country about its corrupt social system. So what made King such an effective strategic leader?

While King is best remembered for his bold "I Have a Dream" speech, his journey demonstrates a profound mastery of several key disciplines of strategic leadership as listed below. They provide an inspiring and powerful roadmap for leaders today interested in strengthening their own strategic effectiveness in volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous environments.

Anticipate the Opposition

Dr. King anticipated what was needed to bring about change. He understood that a marginalized group of people, with limited education and economic means, could only become powerful by exercising their voting rights en masse. Like a grand master chess player, he thought several moves ahead, starting by leveraging local coalitions, organizing voter registration, and busing blacks to voting stations in large numbers. He outsmarted the opposition by staying within the law and practicing non-violence. 

Challenge the Status Quo

King's strong vision for social justice compelled him to confront the most flagrant violations of civil rights in the South. He was fearless in confronting the arrogance of white supremacy, realizing full well that he was playing with fire, as the brutal murders of three idealistic freedom fighters in Mississippi so cruelly underscored. He employed powerful unconventional tactics, including the famous Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery, to shine a light on unjust racial prejudice that was deeply rooted in the South. 

Interpret the Signs

King's careful selection of Selma as a focal point to escalate the struggle for voting rights was based on a keen analysis of the local political scene as well as the various scenarios that could ensue. His opposition movement had already encountered church bombings, lynching, imprisonment, water cannons, and brutal beatings. By recognizing and interpreting political undercurrents, moral awakenings in the North, and changing social mores--especially among younger Americans--King strategically set out to redirect political forces at local and national levels.

Weigh the Risks

Dr. King and his team considered multiple options when choosing targets and tactics, from non-violent civil disobedience to provocatively challenging segregation laws. Driven by an uncompromising vision of social justice, he always approached tactical decisions with a seasoned eye for risks, unintended consequences, and symbolic value. King and his powerful allies had the courage to make tough choices, such as moving forward with their campaign in the face of life-threatening attacks, including a bombing at King's home and an assassination attempt years later. 

Make Strong Alliances

King was very adroit, even as a young leader, at building mutually beneficial alliances with local ministers and community organizers. He also masterfully aligned himself with the powers that be, including President Johnson, who slowly warmed to the idea of introducing history-changing voter rights protections. This protracted process, pushed through at the right time with reluctant and cautious politicians, required especially shrewd dialog with Johnson, who ranked among the toughest masters of hardball politics. 

Learn and Adapt

Dr. King and his associates encountered numerous setbacks and surprises as they launched their historic uphill battle; King was jailed 29 times during the Birmingham campaign alone. He learned first-hand that no plan survives contact with the enemy and that many adjustments to the plan would be required. King and his team experimented with a wide arrange of tactics, including marches, protests, and even leveraging celebrities to create political pressure. Over time, they figured out a powerful tactical mix that worked wonders in the end. 

King's impressive command of the above strategic leadership disciplines led to truly historic success. They hold powerful lessons for all leaders, and underscore the courage and persistence needed to change the world. Leaders who want to change minds and overcome deeply entrenched prejudices, biases, and misguided values need to master the six disciplines profiled above and illustrated through Dr King's words and deeds.

Co-authored with Steven Krupp, senior managing partner at Decision Strategies International, who recently published with me Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape The Future, December 2014, Perseus Press. 

Published on: Feb 27, 2015
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