Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream” Speech, Transformational Leadership and Vision

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Abstract. This paper examines Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an effective tool for teaching transformational leadership. Dr King’s speech provides an outstanding example of the transformational leadership process of identifying and articulating a vision. The speech and its historical context may help students to understand the importance of a strategic vision and its effective communication to followers. The paper provides an overview of the historical context of the speech, along with an analysis of speech within the context of the transformational leadership model. Finally, we provide specific suggestions for using the speech as an effective teaching tool.

Dr. Martin Luther King

Keywords: Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” speech, transformational leadership and vision.

1.  Introduction

Effective leadership is a significant need in current organizations due to today’s dynamic environments. While people have examined leadership from a variety of perspectives, the transformational leadership stream of research provides strong evidence of positive links between transformational leaders and organizational outcomes (e.g. Bass 1999; Fuller, Patterson, Hester & Stringer 1996, Judge & Piccolo 2004, Kearney & Geber, 2009, Herold, Fedor, Caldwell, & Liu 2008, Bass, Avolio, Jung, & Berson 2003, Kirkman, Chen, Farh, Chen, & Lowe 2009, Godwin & Neck 1998, Gong, Huang, & Farh 2009, Piccolo & Colquitt 2006). Researchers have examined a variety of dependent variables such as the positive relationships between transformational leadership and follower attitudes such as

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organizational commitment and job satisfaction (Fuller, et al. 1996, Lowe, Krock, & Sivasubrananian 1996). Given the significant support for the efficacy of transformational leadership, the purpose of this paper to examine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an effective tool for teaching transformational leadership.

1.  Historical Context

On January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Christine Williams welcomed their second child and first son, Martin Luther King, Jr., into their family. With both parents residing and serving as prominent Baptist preachers in the culturally robust city, Martin Jr. was immediately engulfed in the culture of the black community during a time when most blacks were disadvantaged by a racist, white society. Consistent with many other civil right leaders, King developed his moral, spiritual, and leadership values from the African-American’s most influential social body, the church. In addition, the high value he placed on education and self-improvement would shape his leadership style as an advocate for civil liberties for all Americans.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s family heritage and church greatly influenced him in the early stages of his life. His mother, Alberta, was “not only a strong spiritual force in young Martin’s life, but she was also a source of insight and comfort for him as he struggled to understand slavery and its tragic legacy of racism and segregation” (Baldwin 1992, p. 644). Furthermore, as a pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and a president of the NAACP in the 1930s, Martin Luther King, Sr. introduced him to “the integrationist values of protest, accommodation, self-help, and optimism as they were related to the religious themes of justice, love, obedience, and hope” (Cone 1992, p. 22). Together, Martin’s home and spiritual life complemented each other to reinforce the values that each instilled in him. They would become the driving force of his life.

3.  The Text of the Speech

By Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (August 28, 1963)

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

4.   Analysis of the “I Have a Dream” Speech as an Applied Example of Transformational Leadership

Despite its general acknowledgement as one of the great public speeches in American history, Dr. King’s speech has been afforded relatively little scrutiny by rhetorical scholars (Vail 2006) and has been paid even less attention as an applied example of transformational leadership. In this section, we provide an analysis of King’s speech as an outstanding illustration of the use of context, urgency, and resonance to create a transformational vision in order to energize and inspire followers to accomplish objectives and achieve goals.

Burn (1978) is credited with the development of the transformational leadership construct. Bass (1985) subsequently built on Burn’s work to more fully develop this leadership perspective and its applications in organizations. This framework of leadership behaviors has four conceptual dimensions: charismatic leadership, inspirational leadership, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Bass 1985, 1990, Hater & Bass 1990, Seltzer, Numerof, & Bass 1989, Yammarino & Bass 1990). Podsakoff, Mackenzie, Moorman, and Fetter (1990, p. 112) developed the following similar, yet slightly different, formulation of transformational leadership behaviors:

  • Identifying and Articulating a Vision – …developing, articulation, and inspiring others with his or her vision of the
  • Providing an Appropriate Model – …that sets an example for employees to follow that is consistent with the values the leader espouses.
  • Fostering the Acceptance of Group Goals – …promoting cooperation among employees and getting them to work together toward a common
  • High Performance Expectations – …expectations for excellence, quality, and/ or high performance on the part of
  • Providing Individualized Support – …respects followers and is concerned about their personal feelings and
  • Intellectual Stimulation – …challenges followers to re-examine some of their assumptions about their work and rethink how it can be performed.

Podsakoff et al. (1990) provided psychometric support for a four-factor model. The first three (“identifying and articulating a vision”, “providing an appropriate model”, and “fostering the acceptance of group goals”) loaded on one factor, which Podsakoff et al (1990) labeled “core transformational leadership behaviors”. The remaining three components of “high performance expectations”, “providing individualized support”, and “intellectual stimulation” had psychometric evidence justifying separate factors (Podsakoff et al. 1990, p. 117).

The core transformational leadership behaviors contribute to increasing the goal commitment of followers. Articulating a vision conveys “a view of a realistic, credible, attractive future for the organization, a condition that is better in some important ways than what now exists” (Bennis & Nanus 1985, p. 89). An

effective leader communicates the vision clearly such that followers will be attracted to it. If followers understand and “buy-in” to the vision then followers are more likely to be committed to its implementation (Locke, Kirkpatrick, Wheeler, Schneider, Niles, Goldstein, Welsh, & Chah 1991). “Providing an appropriate model” also contributes to communicating the vision. Locke, et al. (1991, p. 59) noted: “By acting in accord with the vision, leaders communicate to followers the importance of the vision and their own commitment to it.” Modeling by a leader of behaviors provides the support for the leader’s verbal articulation of the vision (Locke et al. 1991).

5.  Using Dr. King’s Speech as an Effective Teaching Tool

The analysis of Dr. King’s speech as an applied example of transformational leadership and vision can easily be adapted as an effective classroom teaching tool. We suggest the following detailed outline for a 50-70 minute class time frame:

  1. Core transformational leadership behaviors
    • Identifying and Articulating a Vision
    • Providing an Appropriate Mode
    • Fostering the Acceptance of Group Goals
  2. High Performance Expectations
  3. Providing Individualized Support
  4. Intellectual Stimulation (Podsakoff et al. 1990)
  5. Ask students for examples of transformational leaders. Dr. King will usually be among the first names
  6. Divide the class into groups of 3-5 to facilitate
  7. Using the material presented in the “Historical Context” section above, provide the class with an overview of the events and circumstances surrounding Dr. King’s speech. Reconstructing the dynamic spectacle surrounding the speech can heighten the drama of the discussion in class and will help to illustrate how articulating this vision made a difference in this specific situation. Providing the historical context is especially important if this example is being used in an international culture that may be less familiar with Dr. King and the American Civil Rights Movement. Including details such as the fact that when King and his wife left their hotel room that morning, King thought the March was a failure because

media outlets were reporting that there were only about 25,000 marchers, a ten-fold underestimate, can add to the atmospheric drama. Also explain to the students that when he arrived at the famous “dream” segment of his speech, Dr. King abandoned his prepared script and was speaking quasi- extemporaneously, employing a series of familiar “set pieces” that he had been using in his preaching and political speeches for the past several years. Ask students to watch for when this “shift” takes place and to note any changes in Dr. King’s style of delivery and in the effectiveness of his message and vision. Finally, ask students to try to identify any rhetorical techniques that King may have used to increase the effectiveness of his vision.

8.Show the “I Have a Dream” speech to the

  • Copies are available in many
  • YouTube can also be a source for this

9.Ask the students (in their discussion groups) to answer the following questions:

  • What are the main points of Dr. King’s vision? How does the speech paint a picture of the future that is better that the situation in 1963?
  • Why do you think Dr. King was so effective at communicating this vision?
  • What rhetorical techniques helped him to create his vision? Are these same techniques available to business leaders?
  • What can we learn regarding the communication of a strategic vision in organizations? In what ways is leading change in an organization like leading change in a social movement?

10.Have each group report their answers to these questions and then finish the class exercise with a general                       discussion leading to some summary conclusions. The instructor should use the detailed information presented           in the analysis above to facilitate the class

6.  Conclusion

In short, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech provide an excellent example of transformational leadership and vision (McGuire & Hutchings 2007). We can learn from his skills in developing and communicating an effective strategic vision. Dr. King was effective in leading a movement that would help transformation the nation. Although the transformational nature of the “dream” speech was not immediately realized – the civil rights movement suffered several severe setbacks in the initial years following the March on

Washington – much like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the speech began to acquire a wide reaching and transformational influence following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. Today, the transformational vision created by the “I Have a Dream” speech forms the cornerstone of Dr. King’s leadership efforts that have been translated into a social influence that continues more than four decades after his death.

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