MLK: 4 Unseen Leadership Qualities

4 Little-Known Reasons Martin Luther King Was An Amazing Leader, Human

This article was originally published in Fast Company.

A look at the little-known depths of anger, humor, and insight of the famous leader.

Martin Luther King Jr. seems more legend than man.

But if we peer into Dr. King’s life, we can see that he was more and less than myth: a person with interior complexity and exterior grace beyond what a textbook can tell you. So let’s get to know his intense, hilarious, and prescient sides below.


MLK was a person, which means he had a range of emotions, just like the rest of us. But, as we’ve mentioned before, the highest functioning people exercise what psychologists call emotional agility, where you notice an emotion like anger when it arises and then choose a response–rather than suppressing it or getting overwhelmed.

From his autobiography, we can see that Dr. King developed emotional agility from a young age. Like in this anecdote from 1943:

When I was 14, I traveled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia, with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley [to] participate in an oratorical contest. We were on a bus returning to Atlanta. Along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us. I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. We stood up in the aisle for 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.

As Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa observes, King had to tame his anger in order to become a “messenger of peaceful struggle.” King worked hard to maintain his nonviolence and admonished himself when he didn’t. A telling example comes from the negotiations to close the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in late 1955. He saw that the talks were headed toward a stalemate, as whites weren’t giving up their segregation privileges.

I’m interested in changing the kind of system that produces this kind of man.

Coming home with a “heavy heart” and a “terrible sense of guilt,” King recalled his own angry, indignant moments in his autobiography. He continued:

I had spoken hastily and resentfully. Yet I knew that this was no way to solve a problem. ‘You must not harbor anger,’ I admonished myself. ‘You must be willing to suffer the anger of the opponent, and yet not return anger. You must not become bitter. No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm.’”


People who like to talk about innovation are given to bandying about the phrase systems thinking, or understanding how individual elements within a broader system interact with one another.

The holism in King’s nonviolence was a type of systems thinking. He saw how the racist relates to racism. As Wadhwa notes, King came face to face with it in September 1962. For as he was giving a speech, a white member of a Nazi party jumped onstage and repeatedly punched him in the face. Security took him away–and King didn’t press charges.

“The system that we live under creates people such as this youth,” King wrote in Martin Luther King on Leadership. “I am not interested in pressing charges. I’m interested in changing the kind of system that produces this kind of man.”

That high-context insight also informed King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Beyond its cost in lives, King argued that foreign interventionism had an economic cost, since war spending took funds away from social programs. As he proclaimed in a 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.


Late in his cut-short life, Dr. King shifted his focus from race to poverty. In 1968, five years after his “I Have A Dream” speech, King sought to launch a Poor People’s Campaign with the goal of bringing about a mandatory income for all Americans. King sought to press the issue with a tent city.

As Mark Engler at The Nation explains it:

In King’s vision of the campaign, thousands of Americans who had been abandoned by the economy would create a tent city on the National Mall, demand action from Congress, and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience until their voices were heard.

Sounds an awful lot like Occupy Wall Street, doesn’t it?


Dr. King’s good humor was shown with how quick he was on his feet. Fast Company‘s own Miles Kohrman unearthed audio of a question-and-answer session that King had after giving a speech at the New School. If you give a listen, you’ll hear how he cracks the room up:

To end, we must note that a giggling Martin Luther King is just about the best thing. Here he is with his pal Harry Belafonte:

And then he said . . .

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, everyone.

This article was originally published in Fast Company.