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.

People First Leadership: Remembering Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines

photography of airplane during sunrise

Photo by Anugrah Lohiya on Pexels.com

This past week, Southwest Airlines Founder and Chairman Emeritus Herbert D. Kelleher passed away today at the age of 87.

Kelleher left quite an impression on both the airline industry and on those who worked with him. One of Southwest Airline’s achievements has been 46 years of consecutive profitability due to its approach to steady and responsible growth on behalf of its employees and customers.

The drive for Kelleher and Southwest was not merely financial. It was about people. The airline is known for its commitment to affordable travel for its customers, friendly customer service, and employee-centered servant leadership practices.

Kelleher’s business vision for the company evidenced his deep commitment to caring for employees. When asked on one occasion what Kelleher’s vision was for the company over the next ten years, he replied, “My vision is to keep Southwest Airlines job-secure for our people.” Through the time of Kelleher’s passing, Southwest Airlines has never been in bankruptcy or had a layoff of employees—an amazing claim for the turbulent airline industry.

In a statement posted on Southwest’s website regarding Kelleher’s passing, current Chairman and CEO, Gary Kelly, noted the following about Kelleher’s people-first approach to life and business:

“He inspired people; he motivated people; he challenged people—and, he kept us laughing all the way. He was an exceptionally gifted man with an enormous heart and love for people—all people. We have been beyond blessed to have him as a part of our lives.”

Kelleher provided a model of servant leadership and valuing people. Mark Strauss and I included a bit about Kelleher’s leadership in our upcoming book. Here’s a look at some of this reflection:

“Although most business executives see the general value of their employees, not all executives prioritize people as individuals. Herb Kelleher sought to do to this at Southwest for people at every level of the organization—whether fellow executives or those in line jobs as baggage handlers and mechanics.

At one of the company’s famous spirit parties, surrounded by hundreds of people circling Herb for attention, [Colleen] Barrett tells the story of Herb intently talking with a Southwest mechanic in worker’s clothes for at least fifteen minutes—a long conversation by CEO standards. Barrett writes:

‘Herb never looked over the guy’s shoulder to see who else might be there, and never diverted his eyes from this man while they were talking. Herb was courteous to everyone who was trying to shove the guy out of his space so that they could fill it, but he gave this man his time. It was clear … that Herb had no hierarchical concerns—he was completely interested in what the Mechanic was trying to tell him.’”

As you think through your own leadership, what cues might you take from Herb Kelleher? Share your thoughts below.

#9 … Top Posts from 2015 — Remembering A Life Well-Lived


C. Mervin Russell

In a previous post I shared some observations on my top blogs posts from 2015 [link]. In the coming weeks I will be taking time both to share new content and to share some of the top viewed posts from the past year.

The #9 post from 2015 was …

A Life Well-Lived:
Remembering My Grandfather, Dr. Charles Mervin Russell

My grandfather, Dr. Charles Mervin Russell, passed away at 93 years of age in January of 2015. On the heels of our family’s memorial service remember Grandpa’s life, I wanted to take some time to think about what his life meant to me and so many others.

These reflections led me to reflect on a passage from the Bible in Hebrews 13:7

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.
Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith

Grandpa Russell’s life was indeed a life well-lived. Grandpa’s life was a gift to me. And, based on the number of individuals that took time to engage with this post, there are many others who were blessed by him as well — both directly and indirectly.

I invite you to join me, one year later, in reflecting again on a life well lived, and then considering how his life may be an example for us in the days ahead.

Here’s a link to the Purpose in Leadership #9 post from 2015:

A Life Well-Lived:
Remembering My Grandfather, Dr. Charles Mervin Russell

A Life Well-Lived: Remembering My Grandfather, Dr. Charles Mervin Russell

C. Mervin Russell

This past weekend we celebrated the life of my grandfather, Dr. Charles Mervin Russell. Grandpa lived a full life in his 93 years (December 12, 1921 – January 22, 2015).

As I have been reflecting on Grandpa’s life this past week, a friend drew my attention to a verse in Hebrews 13.

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.
Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith

– Hebrews 13:7

Grandpa Russell was one of the people in my life “who spoke to [me] the word of God.” Based on the verse above, I’m called to “remember” Grandpa, “consider” the outcome of his way of life, and to “imitate” his faith. I’m sure you can think of people in your life who have lived in such a way that you need to remember, consider, and imitate their lives as well.

As I remember the life of Grandpa, there is a lot to consider. Though I will not go into too much detail in this post, here are a few of the highlights.

Pastor, Youth Leader, Evangelist, Pilot

Grandpa was a pastor who served four Free Methodist churches in the Midwest. Grandpa was a youth leader who served as a regional director for the Free Methodist Youth. Grandpa was an evangelist who served as President of World Gospel Crusades and gave leadership to some 22 large scale crusades throughout the world. Grandpa was a pilot who used his skills for missions aviation work as founder and President of Mercy Airlift. As a pilot, grandpa logged over 6,000 hours flying through 23 different countries. His aviation career began in his early days with a Piper J-3 Cub to later days flying relief supplies to places as far as Ethiopia in Mercy Airlift’s DC-3.

A Passion for the People of the World

Grandpa’s love for the Lord and love for people compelled him to travel to over 69 countries in order to share the good news of the gospel and provide relief supplies to those hit by severe natural disasters and famine. He felt called to minister to both the physical and spiritual hunger in people’s lives, and did this faithfully throughout his life. Grandpa became a follower of Jesus in Lakeland, Florida. Shortly after becoming a Christian, as a teenager Grandpa share the good news of Jesus in his hometown by visiting every home in Palatka, Florida. This passion that began in Florida carried him on a journey of sharing the good news of the gospel with people throughout the United States and in as many as 69 countries.

Dr. Charles Mervin Russell lived his life well. It is a joy to remember this life. It is a joy to consider the outcome of his life. And, by God’s grace, I hope to imitate the faith that was alive and well in Grandpa’s many decades of life.


Interestingly, there is a powerful verse that immediately follows Hebrews 13:7 (the verse shared above).

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.
Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever

– Hebrews 13:7-8

Because Jesus Christ is… because Jesus is the faithful one who is the same today as He was in the past and will be in the future… we can have confidence that He remains at work today in our lives.

As we consider those who have gone before us, the same God that guided and shepherded them in their lives is able to guide and lead us as well. And so, I remember Grandpa’s life, I consider the outcome of his life, and by God’s grace, I will seek to imitate the faith that was at work in his life as well.

C. Mervin Russell

C. Mervin Russell