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MLK's leadership of military relevance

F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. -- The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was considered many things by many people -- a minister, activist, hero, some even thought him to be a communist. However, even his greatest opponents would probably agree that he was a leader -- one with an absolute belief in the strategy of nonviolence and the supreme conviction that all men and women deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. 

In the book, "Martin Luther King, Jr. on Leadership: Inspiration and Wisdom for Challenging Times," Donald T. Phillips presented a detailed yet simple review of MLK's leadership principles. Phillips applied these principles to the challenges leaders face today. As I read this book, I realized that MLK's principles were easily applicable to any Airman, be it a first-termer or wing commander. Two of MLK's leadership traits in particular caught my attention: encouraging creativity and innovation, and involving everyone through alliance, teamwork and diversity. 

MLK believed in a nonviolent civil rights movement in spite of staunch opposition from many who wanted to fight fire with fire. He knew black citizens would be on the losing end of a violent struggle, so he and the other civil rights leaders adopted innovative approaches to accomplish the job. 

In 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality created an integration strategy of sending black and white riders to the south on buses. Their efforts failed and many of the riders were jailed. In the 1960s, CORE resurrected the idea and asked for MLK's support. He saw this as a chance to push his nonviolent approach. The idea worked with varied success as some of the Freedom Riders were killed, but it brought about much needed national attention. MLK's creative and innovative leadership ultimately paved the way for future civil rights victories. 

That same push for creativity and innovation is what drives military success today. Early air and space attempts resulted in many crashes and anomalies before the technologies matured, but the persistent creativity and innovation of our forbearers eventually produced the world's greatest Air Force. 

As leaders, we have to encourage those same behaviors within our units and work hard to get Airmen to understand how they can bring about change. MLK was smart enough to understand how someone else's good idea could advance the big picture. It is the good ideas of Airmen that will continue to shape our Air Force to meet future threats. 

As a young leader, MLK had success galvanizing his portion of the civil rights movement, but he was viewed as a turf-builder by "old school" civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. MLK knew there was no room or time for competition between groups -- the stakes were too high. He began to build an alliance of organizations working towards the same goal. And he didn't just work with black organizations -- he also sought the cooperation of various political, social, economic, cultural, intellectual and religious organizations. MLK developed a broad-based, diverse alliance to pull off the biggest social revolution in American history.
As military leaders, our job is not to implement social revolution but to seek organizational improvements in these times of asymmetric enemies and shrinking resources. By encouraging alliance, teamwork and diversity, we can create four advantages that MLK recognized and employed: 1) band individuals together to create energy, enthusiasm and courage, 2) people gain more strength and power in formal organizations, 3) major change occurs in groups and 4) alliances help with networking. 

To put it into Air Force perspective, you need only look at a group like the community action information board. The CAIB brings together multidisciplinary groups and individuals, composed of various ranks and strata for the purpose of identifying and resolving issues that impact Airmen and family readiness. In short, it is a diverse alliance brought together as a network to help the Air Force family and, if necessary, create change to promote better readiness. 

Regardless of rank, we are all leaders and should do everything we can to develop our leadership skills. Studying the experiences of great Americans like MLK can only help us to become better leaders. He used his skills to effect positive change on a great nation. You can use your skills to effect greater change on an Air Force critical to the defense of our great nation.