What can we learn from MLK about how to be powerful leaders?

As Thursday was just the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, it seemed like a good time to reflect upon MLK’s leadership and what makes him such an inspiring figure to this day. Video and transcript below.




Most MLK celebrations talk about the end of King’s life and his big accomplishments, but what about his early years when he was just starting out as a leader? What sort of struggles did he face and how did he overcome them in order to step into his greatness as the conscience of an entire nation? And what can we learn from him regarding the insecurities and fears that we may have about speaking out as leaders?

Personal Insecurities

First of all, regarding personal insecurities, he was extremely young—only about 25—when he was called into his life mission. He met with presidents at the White House, flew to India and met with Gandhi—it must have been very intimidating, especially for someone so young. Bayard Rustin, the African American gay man who organized the March on Washington where King spoke his “I Have A Dream” speech, actually had much more experience with non-violent resistance than King did. So he must’ve had some inner questioning about “why me?” when there were clearly other very talented people who in many ways were more qualified than he was.

The second thing that strikes me is that he was quite short. He was only 5’6, which for a man is pretty short stature, especially a national leader. Which must’ve lent extra significance to all of the physical assaults that he was subject to and his level of feeling safe in the world.

And finally, he was a junior—his father was Martin Luther King Sr—who, from everything I’ve read and heard about him, was quite a powerful and dominant man who wielded great influence in the Black community and who was feared by both blacks and whites, due to his frankness that could be cutting at times. While MLK Jr was only 5’6, his father had a big presence—he was a large man with a dynamic personality that commanded attention. He was very strong and self-confident. Even as a child, his father stood up to whites, confronting the plantation owner who was cheating his own father out of his rightful wages and, as an adult, his father was president of the NAACP in Atlanta.

King was very reliant on his father. As he writes in one of his books, “The first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years. If I had a problem I could always call Daddy. Things were solved. Life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package.”

While King clearly admired his father and saw him as a role model, both in his community involvement as well as his moral conviction, his father’s example must’ve also put pressure on him. MLK Jr followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming assistant pastor to his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, so he surely must’ve had some father issues, wanting to live up to his father’s reputation and make his father proud.


His Fears

So those are some likely insecurities that he had to grapple with in stepping into his power of leadership. How about fears? Clearly, this is a man who could not have felt very safe in life. For those of us called to leadership, his example can represent our worst nightmares of what might happen when we step out to share what we know.

Some of the things he faced:

  • He was arrested over 20 times
  • He received many threatening phone calls, often late at night
  • His house was bombed and set on fire.
  • He was regularly slandered in his reputation. J. Edgar Hoover called him “the most notorious liar in the country” (similar to Nelson Mandela was considered to be a terrorist for most of his life)
  • While at a book signing for his new book, he was stabbed and had to be rushed to Harlem Hospital where a team of doctors successfully removed a 7-inch letter opener from his chest (that’s pretty intense when you think you’re just going to your book signing)
  • During the closing session of the southern leadership conference in Birmingham, a member of the American Nazi Party assaulted him, striking him twice in the face (also would be a little shocking at a conference).
  • Burning crosses on his lawn were common and likely very intimidating
  • And ultimately, he was assassinated—the fate of most prophets over human history


Being here from the future, I’ve long felt like something of a prophet myself—bringing messages that most people simply don’t want to hear and that can be pretty intimidating stepping out, knowing what usually happens to people who bring those messages. So one of the biggest obstacles for me in my own path of leadership has been about overcoming those fears about what would happen to me if I stepped out. And I really felt a very visceral fear in my body for my own safety in this regard, that I would be harmed for speaking out, though I knew rationally that this was probably ungrounded.

I don’t know much about my past lives, but I did have a past life reading when I moved to Colorado and the woman who did it for me wouldn’t even tell me everything she saw—she just said it was a whole a parade of really terrible ways that I was murdered for stepping out and speaking the truth. So I feel like there were real ways that was stuck in the cells of my body, so I had to confront my own fears about the possibility of that happening to me, although I knew on some level that it was probably not that realistic of a fear.


What Made MLK Special as a Leader?

Nevertheless, MLK fulfilled his life mission and became a hero to people all over the world. So how did he combat his own fears and insecurities and what can we learn from his example?

Some of the things that made him special as a leader:

  1. First of all, he had a Clear Vision

MLK’s vision represented the aspirations of millions around the world; his “I Have A Dream Speech” was not his dream alone. So he tapped into a universal message.

  1. Because he was tapped into a Universal Message, he had a strong sense of Moral Conviction.

He was not just trying to make a name for himself or to make life better for himself or his little group—he wanted to transform the entire world for the betterment of everyone and, similar to Nelson Mandela, really inspire all people to rise into their highest potential. This is a message that I identify with as well, that “We can do better” as a people.

  1. Soul Strength

He received this message, as well as the strength to bring it out into the world, by being tapped into his connection to Source. He was not just running on his own steam, and that’s really important. He was channeling a Divine Message and was therefore given the Soul Strength to bring it forth, even under great adversity.

One of his memoirs details how receiving a threatening phone call late in the evening prompted a spiritual revelation that filled him with the strength to carry on in spite of the persecution he was experiencing.

  1. Finally, no doubt as a result of all of these things, he had a strong sense of his own dignity and humanity.

He knew his inherent worth as a person. It came from his religious faith as well as from his upbringing. He was not somebody who was plagued by feelings of unworthiness.

He describes how his mom taught him that he should feel a sense of “somebodiness.” She told him that he would have to face a system that stared him in the face every day saying you are “less than,” you are “not equal to.” But she made it clear that she opposed this system and told him you must never allow it to make you feel inferior. She reminded him constantly: “You are as good as anyone.”

Interestingly, he reports that the first time that he was seated behind a curtain in a segregated dining car that he felt as if the curtain had been dropped on his selfhood. He said, “I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, and separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.”

This sense of dignity and self-respect is probably what is most striking about MLK. If you watch his speeches, it is so evident in his body language and the way he speaks and carries himself. He is poised, he is still, he is powerful, he is fearless, and overall he is very present—you feel like all of him is there in the way he speaks and carries himself. And I believe it is his inherent sense of worth, and accompanying sense of self respect and dignity, that is what most upset people about him. Because it was a kind of insubordination. He didn’t carry himself like an oppressed person.

I think that is really interesting. One of the things I’ve noticed in the negative responses to my ad for my Facebook group for trans leaders are the changes that are taking place as I have sought to fill the place where all the negative comments and nonsense was happening with my own voice and my own videos, speaking from my own sense of knowledge, my own sense of authority, and my own sense of vision—which is not just a vision for my little group but really is a vision of what trans people, gender creative people, intersex, genderqueer, non-binary people are here to teach all of us, that we are here to teach humanity what we know based on our life experience as people largely standing outside of the gender binary.

It has been interesting to see the result. One result is there’s not so many comments. So I do feel like my stepping out and putting a stop to that has really shut down some of that nonsense to begin with. People don’t feel the same sense of permission to be able to just stand up and say ridiculous things. But also people’s comments have gotten a lot more aggressive and violent and the attacks a lot more personal. So a lot of them say something like “Sam Bullington, you’re a fucking idiot and you should go off and die” basically.

So I think part of that response, that increased aggressiveness, really comes from that sense of insubordination, that I’m not standing there pleading for cisgender people to tolerate me. I’m really speaking from a sense of authority and speaking the truth—about the nature of gender and our biology, for instance. My next video especially is going to be about the dysfunction of cisgender heterosexuality and the healthiness of gender creative people—to combat the notion that being trans is a mental illness and so therefore gender creative people should not be leaders in society. I want to instead really demonstrate what we know.

So I feel like this really upsets the sense of power that cisgender people tend to feel—that trans people are ridiculous objects of pity and so therefore I have power over them as a cisgender person and I can exert myself as a bully. And so to not fight back in traditional ways, but just to stand in your own sense of authority and dignity I feel like is quite powerful and really does tend to ruffle people’s feathers. When you dare to speak out of your place, to speak with authority not apology. And to really embrace your own humanity.


Healing our Fear and Lack of Worthiness to be in Vibrational Alignment with our Mission and Message

So how is your sense of dignity and self-respect? And where does it come from? Are you tapped into Source or are you trying to run on your own steam? What Source means to you and how you access it is entirely up to you, but we really can’t get very far just trying to run on our own steam. Many of us did not receive that sense of somebodiness and inherent worth from our families—in fact, for many of us, that’s where the greatest damage was done. What that means now, as adults, is not that we are just fundamentally damaged and must limp along in life, but instead that we are tasked with healing that and clearing up our energetic vibration. Which is really necessary not only for us to step into our most powerful place as leaders, but also to really be able to have happy and joyful and peaceful lives.

Ultimately what strikes me most about MLK was that he was in total vibrational alignment with his mission and his message and his sense of worth. It IS scary to step out if you are not in vibrational alignment, because people can sense that you are an easy target and will feel your vulnerability, the ways you expect to not be treated very well and they will treat you in that manner. But there are ways to heal this and clean this up—that’s where I can help. If you recognize this as something that is holding you back, let’s have a conversation.

MLK was able to speak for those who didn’t have the vision, or the words, or the articulateness to be able to speak it, as well as those who didn’t have the courage and soul strength to step out into the spotlight and to receive the glory as well as to absorb the wrath that goes with stepping out like that. I believe that those of you who are listening have been called to step out and speak for the others who can’t. Whenever you are ready to be that leader, reach out (Sam.Bullington@colorado.edu) and I can help you get there.


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