Strategic Thinking

Understanding why quitters win

4 Intriguing Decisions From Martin Luther King

Success lessons from the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Strategist

There is no question that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great orator and an inspiring leader. Less has been said about his brilliance as a strategic decision-maker. Here are four key strategic decisions in the life and career of Martin Luther King, Jr.  

THREE BRILLIANT DECISIONS

1. Deciding NOT to pursue Claudette Colvin’s case. We all know about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat. But have you ever heard of Claudette Colvin? Nine months before Parks’ act of defiance, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her bus seat. King and the other members of the Birmingham African American Community decided that the pregnant and unmarried Colvin would not be the most effective poster child for their cause so they did not pursue her case. Colvin was no less courageous or deserving of support than Parks.

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But King’s decision illustrates that effective strategic leadership sometimes requires passion and ideology to be tempered by a coldly rational consideration of end goals and the opinions and perspectives held by the people you’ll need to achieve your goal. Pursuing Colvin’s case in a conservative 1955 America would have required fighting two battles at once—racial segregation and social acceptance of unwed, teen mothers. The most likely outcome would have been defeat on both fronts.  

2. Deciding to clarify his primary strategic direction. In April 1959, Reverend King made a long-awaited pilgrimage to India where he hoped to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi’s use of non-violence in his own civil rights battle against the British Empire.  After leaving India his interest in non-violent revolution became an irrepressible passion. His clear Decision Pulse of “non-violent resistance to oppression” would not only keep him emotionally nurtured during the personal struggles that followed, but also lay a crystal clear guideline for the hundreds of thousands of informal followers he would attract.  

3. Deciding NOT to take on other parties’ causes. When asked why he refused to endorse a political party, King said: "I feel someone must remain in the position of non-alignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both—not the servant or master of either." King wisely recognized that he could serve only one master. In this case, however, Reverend King’s choice was not between the possible masters of God and Money, but instead between party politics and the strategic objectives of his chosen pursuit. Getting tied up with one party’s ticket or another would have required him to make compromises that would…well, compromise his primary movement.

ONE QUESTIONABLE DECISION

4. Deciding to diversify? Near the end of his tragically abbreviated life, King seems to have veered from the clear-eyed pragmatism that characterized his early career. He increasingly broadened his focus from racial equality to also include economic equality. This decision cost him significant support from previous allies. In many cases the defectors even agreed with King’s moral stance, but disagreed with King on strategic grounds. One such defector, Bayard Rustin, had been a well-known and even more outspoken advocate for the plight of the poor long before King. But even Rustin resigned from the “Poor People’s Campaign,” saying that the movement lacked focus or any kind of realistic goals. (I’ll take “Precursors to Occupy Wall Street” for a thousand, Alex…). 

On the other hand, maybe this was the right strategic decision for Martin Luther King, Jr. the person even if not for MLK, the Civil Rights organizer. Maybe the lesson here is that every person must eventually decide for themselves where to draw the line between their personal strategy and their professional strategy. King decided that after his death he wanted the world to remember him like this: 

“I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”  

On this day an entire nation is saying precisely that. Maybe it wasn't such a bad decision after all?  

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Nick Tasler has a background in organizational psychology. He is the author of Why Quitters Win: Decide to Be Excellent.

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