The King Holiday: Broader Reflections for Us All

King's leadership style, collectivist focus, critical for Civil Rights triumphs

Posted Jan 20, 2014

On the day when we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am struck by how much of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement reflects powerful themes in psychology research on the self. King would have turned 85 last week, yet his engagement with important societal issues from a half century ago is very much in step with cutting-edge research on the self in psychology today.

Let's examine just a few aspects of King's approach, including his leadership style, his engagement with others to reduce prejudice and bigotry, and his perspective on the interconnectedness of humanity.

Transformational leadership

Although many people, both known and unknown, contributed to the successes of the American Civil Rights Movement, King is viewed today as its leading figure. In my psychology classes, I use King as one of the best examples of a transformational leader because he exemplifies many of its core qualities and illustrates how this approach can achieve great things.

Transformational leaders advance causes by appealing to others' motivations and principles through an adoption of common goals and moral precepts and help to connect others' self identities with these broader themes (for an overview, Bass & Bass, 2008). Leaders in these contexts exemplify a movement through their actions, work on ways to increase individual buy-in with movement objectives, and articulate collective values and vision. Effective transformational leaders assume that others will support a movement if they are intrinsically motivated and aspire for self-development, feel engaged both intellectually and inspirationally with the movement, and will respect and trust leaders who exemplify the group's values and who demonstrate commitment to the group's goals.

It is easy to see how King is a true exemplar of a transformational leader. His background as a Souther Baptist preacher (weekly sermon's advancing moral themes) and as an intellectual (Ph.D., Boston College; avid reader of others' views, such as Mahatma Gandhi) reflect an exceptional blending of morality and intellectualism in the pursuit of justice. Further, the active engagement of others (e.g., the Selma to Montgomery Marches, the March on Washington) led Americans, both Black and White, to feel more personally connected to the Civil Rights Movement and to see it as an outgrowth of their personal values. Although many of the outcomes were clearly unplanned, the American Civil Rights Movement and King's role in embodying it provide a poignant demonstration of transformational leadership in full effect.

Changing prejudice

One of the great challenges in intergroup relations, still to this day, is how negative attitudes held toward members of social groups can be reduced. There are many ways in which negativity toward minorities, including African Americans, is expressed both consciously and nonconsciously that one can wonder about how much progress has been made (see Dovidio et al., 2005). Although prejudice persists today, it is clear that many of King's actions reflect some of the most effective ways to change negative attitudes toward social groups.

In my mind, one of the most effective mechanisms King used was to get people to view their own hypocrisy. In particular, I believe one of the reasons that King was effective in enlisting so many White Americans in the Civil Rights Movement was that he advanced basic principles about human dignity that nearly all people would heartily endorse, then allowed them to see how perpetuating racism was contrary to those views. This notion of making people feel compunction for transgressing their own egalitarian values and goals is at the heart of recent work on reducing prejudice (e.g., Monteith & Mark, 2005; Moskowitz, 2010). In short, feeling guilty about violating one's commitment to being nonprejudice and from not treating people in accordance with one's broader egalitarian goals decreases subsequent prejudiced responses.

Clearly the Civil Rights Movement employed a number of effective tools to fight discrimination and bigotry (e.g., laws to regulate bias, educational engagement), but by enlisting many people's broader values about equality and fair treatment, not living up to those ideals would serve to trigger cognitive dissonance and personal disappointment, and these processes in particular rely on using the power of the self to change one's beliefs, and these approaches enjoy good support in the scientific literature.

Focus on interdependence

Finally, one theme revealed throughout King's sermons and speeches was the idea that peace and social justice could only be achieved through a focus on people's mutual interdependence (indeed, King's use of "brotherhood" was a common element in all of his public addresses). That is, King's focus on the essential truth that people are highly interconnected was a transcendental value underlying not only his efforts to reduce racism in America, but also in his later crusades against poverty and war (especially in Vietnam).

Viewing the self as part of a broader social interconnectedness is reflected in many modern theories of self that emphasize interdependence rather than seeing the self as a single, freestanding, independent entity (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991; McConnell et al., 2013; Triandis, 1989). This perspective goes against the grain of many defaults in American society that emphasize the self as an entity that strives to express its individualism, uniqueness, and distinctiveness. By focusing on collective concerns, people are less inclined to act selfishly and more likely to think about the impact of their actions on others.

By appealing to themes such as "brotherhood," King sought to increase the sense of interconnectedness that could make a privileged, wealthy individual understand why the treatment of disadvantaged, poor minority members of society really mattered. The notion of transcendence is at the heart of many great social change leaders (e.g., The Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi), and this underlying theme borne out of King's strong religious background and personal experiences in the South allowed him to see common underlying connections between the Civil Rights Movement, poverty, and the War in Vietnam.


On a day where we should all reflect on King's legacy, I am struck by how much of his vision reflected important, core principles of the psychology of the self. Many of the processes underlying the themes he trumpeted are now only beginning to be understood by researchers. King's transformational leadership style and his focus on greater collectiveness in reducing prejudice and increasing concern for others are triumphs for us all, and these are lessons people should embrace every day.


Bass, B. M., & Bass, R. (2008). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications (4th Ed.). New York: Free Press.

Dovidio, J. F., Glick, P. G., & Rudman, L. (Eds.) (2005). On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.

McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., & Shoda, T. M. (2013). The social cognition of the self. In D. E. Carlston (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of social cognition (pp. 497-516). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Monteith, M. J., & Mark, A. Y. (2005). Changing one’s prejudice ways: Awareness, affect, and self-regulation. European Review of Social Psychology, 16, 113-154.

Moskowitz, G. B. (2010). On the control over stereotype activation and stereotype inhibition. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 140-158.

Triandis, H. C. (1989). The self and social behavior in differing cultural contexts. Psychological Review, 96, 506-520.

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