Leadership in Letters
In his writing, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrates what it means to be a great leader. King’s letter provides concrete examples of the five practices exceptional leaders do as outlined in James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s work, The Five Practices of Exemplary Student Leadership. King’s letter illustrates the leadership methods of modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart. Additionally, King uses rhetoric such as ethos, pathos, and logos, to convey his values.
In order to model the way, Kouzes and Posner argue that a strong leader begins by clarifying their personal values (Kouzes and Posner 2). King uses logos to accomplish a compelling and concise statement declaring his views. He argues that just laws should be followed and unjust laws should be openly and deliberately disobeyed (King 7). People discriminated by unjust laws could embrace this logical statement. King strengthens his case with his intellectual capacity to memorize and recite supportive quotes. The skill shows his credibility, knowledge, and attention to detail, making him an even stronger leader. A high level of credibility is something that Kouzes and Posner noted as an important characteristic of modeling the way (Kouzes and Posner 1). Not only is King psychologically modeling the way, but he is also physically modeling the way. King is confined in a jail cell when he wrote, “A Letter from Birmingham Jail”. That fact shows that King is modeling the way by taking action for what he believes in, even risking his civil liberties in the process. Kouzes and Posner stress that there is power by being highly visible in times of turmoil and uncertainty and King is proving to be a good leader by exposing himself to injustice (Kouzes Posner 2).
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By modeling the way, Martin Luther King is able to inspire a shared vision in the minds of his followers. Like Kouzes and Posner propose, good leaders, like King, are passionate that they can make a difference. King’s vision is to desegregate the south through negotiation. In the letter, he writes, “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America” (King 18). By using words like “destiny” and “goal”, King breathes life into this vision and ennobles to strive to better today. Kouzes and Posner point out the importance of what King is doing also urging leaders to imagine an exciting and attractive future (Kouzes and Posner 3). King’s letter does this and sparks inspiration in minds his followers. The energy in the letter is deliberately contagious.
In other parts of the United States, movements of desegregation were also spreading. However, Jim Crow laws and segregation remained the societal norm in Birmingham. King challenges this in ways described by Kouzes and Posner. They say that to challenge the process a leader must venture out and accept challenges (Kouzes and Posner 3). King actively challenged the law which lead to his arrest in Birmingham. Like a strong leader, he sought greatness and accepted the challenges. He tells his followers to do the same writing, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty” (King 8). Along with stepping into the unknown with an open mind, King also provides potential answers for the civil rights issues tormenting Alabama residents. He calls for negotiation with the government and church. This is King’s way of providing opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve just as Kouzes and Posner describe in their work.
Kouzes and Posner also stress the importance of followers, emphasizing that good leaders know they cannot do everything themselves (Kouzes Posner 4). King clearly understands that he cannot change the world on his own. His passionate letter engages people from all backgrounds because of his deliberate use of the word “we.” He universalizes the issues of discrimination by using inclusive pronouns to create a sense of unity. King writes in absolute terms like, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King 2). In order for all people to understand why the situation in Alabama is so unjust, he uses pathos and gives vivid descriptions of what Black Americans had to go through in the South. As Kouzes and Posner suggest, King also enables others to act in positive ways. He reminds readers that individuals working together can do extraordinary work. This is evident when King writes about the effect that hard work and the wheel of human progress (King 11).
To keep this wheel of human progress turning, King enables the hearts of others. Kouzes and Posner explain that encouraging the heart is a simple as recognizing and celebrating the contributions of others (Kouzes and Posner 5). King does this in his letter multiple times, addressing different groups of people. He acknowledges his “white brothers” as well as addressing the men who prompted the writing of the letter (King 1,14). King uses ethical appeal (ethos) to acknowledge those men and asserts his respect for them. Not only does King recognize the contribution of his white allies, but he also celebrates the victories of the African Americans fighting in Virginia. One of the most powerful quotes of the King’s letter reads, “I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes” (King 19). He cares for those protesters which parallels the teachings of Kouzes and Posner. The quote also shows that King values the importance of ordinary people. His caring heart allows him to be a strong leader.
Martin Luther King illustrates the five practices of Kouzes and Posner into his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” splendidly. King is able to lead by example, inspire common aspirations, resist the status quo, empower action, and embolden the heart. These five practices of exemplary leadership as outlined by Kouzes and Posner are even more solidified by King’s word choice and rhetoric. The five practices serve as an outline for strong leadership and King serves as an exemplary leader who integrated the practices into his leadership style. The works of Martin Luther King, James Kouzes, and Barry Posner create a simple yet effective model that all leaders can follow.
- King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 16 Apr. 1963.
- Kouzes, James M., and Barry Z. Posner. The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.
- Pfeiffer, 2011.”