Notes on Moral Courage, Power and Leadership – in Honor of Dr. King

Moral courage, power and leadership are not always traveling companions. As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, I write today about right use of power by leaders. It takes real courage to be a leader who strives to use her or his own power in the service of achieving just and fair goals with a maximally functional, high-performance team in an ethical way. I believe Dr. King exhibited that rare combination of moral courage, power and leadership in much that he did.

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

Dr. King as a Moral Leader

A recent article about him by Fast Company highlights four key traits that made Dr. King a strong leader, namely that he worked with his anger, he was a systems thinker, he wanted to occupy Washington DC, and he was funny.  These things combined to create a powerful and charismatic leader who acted regularly with moral courage.  As evidenced in that article, leaders at all levels need a wide variety of skills that are not easily taught in a textbook or a classroom.

Five Skills for Moral Courage, Power and Leadership

The Center for Creative Leadership has published an outstanding article, entitled “5 Skills for Leading Up, Down and Across.”   The article describes 5 key skills mid- and senior-level leaders need in order to be able to succeed.  I believe that it takes courage to learn and use these skills.

The abilities described in the article include:

  1. Interpersonal skills
  2. Influence
  3. Political savvy
  4. Broad perspective
  5. Boundary spanning

These skills require self-reflection and a view of leadership that is not based in traditional, hierarchical modes of command and control, but rather is based on collaboration, self-reflection, the ability to scan the environment effectively, and a perception of leadership power that is a highly desirable trait for today’s leaders.

Certain personality traits and a high degree of emotional intelligence will make it easier to acquire and utilize these skills. Individuals with key traits, including the valuing of others’ perspectives, a desire to achieve outcomes effectively within teams and a sense of power from within, rather than power over others, will be more adept at using these skills.

It is easy to aspire to the kind of leadership that offers authority, dominance, and power others. However, in today’s world of collaboration, particularly in a highly interconnected and communication-centric environment, dominance is no longer the prime model of effective leadership.

Personal mastery of skills such as those above, in order to meet the goals of the organization, through creation and deployment of highly effective teams, is a key skill in the knowledge economy.  The ability to foster such teams requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, and a willingness to share personal power with others.

What is the connection between moral courage, power and leadership for you?

The courage to strive for the right use of one’s own personal power may be the most valuable trait of leadership today.   How do you view the right use of your personal power in leadership?  I am interested in your comments.

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Sharon Hull, MD, ACC

President and CEO at Metta Solutions, LLC
Hi, and welcome to Metta Solutions.I am a physician and a professional executive coach .  I help people thrive by coaching them to manage change, grow their careers, develop as leaders and integrate personal and professional goals. My passion is working with self-reflective individuals and organizations to help them achieve their goals.  Subscribe to the Metta Solutions Community here.
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