Leadership Communication: Reflections on Dr. King’s Example

mlk memorial_thad zajdowicz

Photo Credit: MLK Memorial, by Thad Zajdowicz, Flickr

Last week I noted how leadership communication has been a topic of significant interest among Purpose in Leadership readers. Leaders who care about their message must learn the art and practice of effective leadership communication.

While there are there many positive examples of leadership communicators in history, one of the most powerful visionary communicators of the twentieth century was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In an upcoming book that will be published this summer, I take some time to unpack leadership communication practices by looking at the example of Dr. King.

Dr. King was clear on his core message. He also was able to draw on this core message when needed, and speak about what mattered most to him in an extemporaneous manner. While he delivered as many as 450 speeches a year at some points, King was able to return to his core message in powerful ways.

Dr. King also knew how to blend both powerful logic and compelling passion that engaged hearts and minds alike. Using a rhetorical pattern of repetition in communication known as anaphora, King engaged his audiences in both memorable and moving ways. Though certainly not limited to Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, consider the use of anaphora in this speech: “One hundred years later,” “Now is the time,” “We can never be satisfied,” “With this faith,” “Let freedom ring,” and, of course, “I have a dream.” Such repetition helped to bring King’s compelling message to a place of memorability.

Dr. King also used visionary and imaginative language as a key communication tool. Consider such powerful language such as: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Dr. King’s language awoke the imagination of his hearers to “see” through his visionary word pictures.

Also embedded in these and other speeches by King is the power of vision and word pictures. As King cast a vision for equality and justice to diverse audiences, he intentionally used language that was visual in nature. His language awoke the imagination to “see” this arc of the moral universe. His language awoke the imagination to “see” freedom ringing across the United States from the Northeast, to the West Coast, to the Deep South. His language awoke the imagination to “see” sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners sitting down together at the table of brotherhood. His language awoke the imagination to “see” little black boys and black girls joining hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers

Here’s a glimpse of how we wrap up this section reflecting on Dr. King as an effective leadership communicator in our forthcoming book:

This is the power of leaders using visionary language. Through their language, leaders help people to see and envision what a preferred future can look like. King used visionary language and rhetorical devices—his language engaged the whole person. King used personal authenticity—people knew he was an owner rather than a renter of the vision he was casting. And King used a message that was clear and focused—people knew what King stood for and how they could join him in this vital work of moving toward equality and justice.

While such a powerful model of communication is not something many, or any, can fully replicate, King’s model of communicating with clarity should inspire current and aspiring leaders. Be clear on your message. Embody your message with personal authenticity. And learn tools of language and speech that can bring your message to life.

As you think about the intersection of leadership and communication, what observations and insights do you have? Take a moment to share your thoughts below.

One thought on “Leadership Communication: Reflections on Dr. King’s Example

  1. As a second year PhD student in Organizational Leadership, this article really resonates with me. With my research interest in propounding a meta-model of a theology of leadership, one of 12 constructs is Leadership Communication. As such, I’m interested in your book and any other suggestions you may have for me.

    Blessings to you and yours,

    Ken Gërhart

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