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The Real Transformers

The Real Transformers
Spring 2010 | Volume 33, Number 1 | Features

Making History: Catalysts for Change

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Photo of Martin Luther King Jr. by Marion Trikosko/Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s ability to speak with passion and unswerving belief first connected with his followers. But his ability to cast a vision they could reach for made him transformational.

As a prominent leader in the African-American civil rights movement, King could have verbally attacked supporters of unjust laws and incited his followers to violent resistance. Instead, the clergyman modeled and used language to inspire people to seek freedom and fairness through nonviolent means.

King’s efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington in Washington, D.C., where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Congress was taking up civil rights legislation. Racial equality was on the table. The content of King’s speech fit its context. And through his oratorical power, King raised public consciousness around the civil rights movement, challenging his followers to persevere:

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. … We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

“A key aspect of transformational leaders is that they can share the pain of their followers,” says SPU Professor of Management Denise Daniels. King knew oppression and inequality. He understood the pain of his audience. But instead of focusing on that pain, he went on to paint a clear vision of a hope-filled future in which black and white children would play together.

This speech carried considerable influence. And caused considerable resistance. Transformational leaders are often controversial, and many suffer personally in their roles. Sometimes they even die for their beliefs, as King did in 1968.

But the dream he shared so vividly had started to take shape. His words sparked the fire — and his followers fanned the blaze.


Winston Churchill

Rosa Parks

Martin Luther King Jr.

Mother Teresa

Oprah Winfrey

Steve Jobs

Nelson Mandela

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