Many young, aspiring leaders have bold vision, exude passion, and abound with self-confidence—and yet no one follows them. Not only do they lack influence, people find them downright annoying. Consider the biblical character, Joseph. As a teenager, he dreamed of greatness and spoke nonstop to his eleven brothers about his grandiose vision of leading them in the future. His siblings grew so tired of his presumptuous talk that they conspired to sell him into slavery. Eventually, Joseph’s brothers did look to him for leadership but not until after he had endured enslavement and imprisonment, and had gained expertise managing economic affairs in Egypt.

The story of Joseph sheds light on two basic qualifications for leadership: competence and character. Let’s look at these qualities in the life of another famous dreamer: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the age of 26, Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization guiding the boycott of the city’s segregated bus system. Thanks to his vital influence, the boycott succeeded and the Montgomery’s buses were desegregated a year later. King’s exceptional leadership in Alabama set the stage for him to become the most prominent figure in the civil rights movement and its foremost voice until his assassination in 1968.

How did King so quickly gain respect and admiration as a leader?

1) He was competent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was prepared to lead because he had gained a first-rate education—both in terms of formal schooling and informal mentoring. He had both book smarts and practical wisdom. King enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta when he was 15 years old, and he earned his B.A. in Sociology. He went on to graduate from Crozer Theological Seminary with a bachelor of divinity and then completed his Ph.D. in systematic theology at Boston University. 

In addition to his academic knowledge, King learned from the example of his parents. He once wrote, “the influence of my father…had a great deal to do with my going in the ministry. This is not to say that he ever spoke to me in terms of being a minister, but that my admiration for him was the great moving factor; He set forth a noble example that I didn’t mine following.” In addition, King benefited from the mentorship of two faculty members at Morehouse College: George Kelsey and Benjamin Elijah Mays. “I could see in their lives the ideal of what I wanted a minister to be,” King wrote. Throughout his life, he sought advice from the two men

2) His character commanded respect.

Leaders earn respect, not in times of ease, but rather in times of adversity when their character has the opportunity to shine. Less than two months after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been named president of the MIA, white supremacists bombed his residence during the evening while he was attending a meeting. King’s wife and baby were at home when the explosion happened, but thankfully they were uninjured. Within hours of the bombing, an enraged throng of King’s supporters gathered around his house. Some in the crowd called for revenge. In the middle of this charged atmosphere, King stepped onto his porch and delivered an impassioned speech counseling restraint. He pleaded with people to take the moral high ground, reminding them of their desire to live as loving Christians, loyal Americans, and peaceable supporters of democracy.  At that moment, King’s character—his poise, courage, and commitment to nonviolence—was clearly displayed. People respectfully took his advice that night and disassembled. Many in the crowd would later follow his example, fearlessly and nonviolently advocating their rights during sit-ins or protest marches even though they faced intimidation and threats of violence.

Questions to Consider

1) To see your vision come to fruition, in what areas do you need to gain knowledge and expertise?

2) Leadership is “caught” as much as it as taught. Among the people you know, who models a life of leadership that you find attractive and inspiring? How can you learn from him/her?

3) What are your core values? Do you integrate them into your daily life or merely affirm them intellectually?

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