The Great American Leader
Nebeyou Abebe
Nebeyou Abebe
Senior Director,
Health & Well-Being
Sodexo North America

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of America’s greatest leaders.

Dr. King’s leadership was fundamental to the United States civil rights movement’s success in ending the legal segregation of African Americans in the South and other parts of the U.S.

I continue to be inspired by Dr. King’s landmark “I have a dream” speech. Not just by his eloquence and literary power, but his embodiment of transformational leadership well before the leadership theory was even conceptualized and articulated.

James MacGregor Burns first introduced the concept of transformational leadership and described it as a mutual process of engagement between leader and followers in elevating each other to higher levels of morality and motivation. Through the strength of their vision and personality, transformational leaders inspire followers to change expectations, perceptions and motivations to work toward common goals.

As I reflect on Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial over half a century ago, I could not help comparing Dr. King’s powerful words against the four universal descriptors for transformational leaders:

  1. Transformational leaders challenge the status quo and encourage followers to explore new ways of doing things. Dr. King certainly challenged the existing state of segregation and injustice, suggesting a new pathway to democracy, racial justice and brotherhood for all, fueled by creating the “urgency of now”
  2. Transformational leaders offer support and encouragement to individual followers, and direct recognition of each follower’s unique contributions. Dr. King took time to empathize with the “great trials and tribulations…storms of persecution and…police brutality” of his followers, and encouraged them to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive”, comforting them with the hope of imminent change that their cooperation could effect
  3. Transformational leaders articulate a clear vision to followers, and help them experience the same passion and motivation to fulfill these goals. Dr. King shared his dream with his “I have a dream” speech which is remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, speech of the 20th century. The speech inspires and motivates millions to believe that they can emancipate themselves from whatever shackles constrain them from the life that they are equally entitled to.
  1. The transformational leader serves as a role model for followers who trust and respect the leader, emulate and internalize his or her ideals. Fifty-five years after Dr. King’s historic speech, he continues to persuade others to believe in his “dream” for a better future and remains a source of hope and inspiration for millions of people around the world.

I encourage you to reflect on the historical contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that have paved the way for us to work, grow and thrive…together!

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