People Science Logo

People Science

Meaningful Work with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The American Civil Rights movement is a powerful example of people doing meaningful work with the guidance of a transformational leader. Psychological theory helps tell the story of what was happening and how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a transformational and mobilizing leader.

Part 1: The Untapped Dream

In psychology, General Strain Theory describes how deep feelings of frustration—feeling blocked from your goals—can lead people to act out in an attempt to reduce the strain. "Acting out" can mean confronting a boss/coworker about unfair workplace treatment. Or it can mean robbing a store to reduce economic strain. But when the strain comes from persistent, systemic injustice—acting out may mean starting a revolution. The question asked in many studies of strain theory is “How much strain does it take before people act out?”1

According to General Strain Theory, there are many types of strain: injustice, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and feelings of social rejection and powerlessness. And in 1955, African Americans were experiencing all of these en masse.

How it felt to be an African American in 1955

Here's a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail about the feelings of strain in the African American community that preceded the Civil Rights revolution in the 1950s and 1960s…7

“ are living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments... you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'... [when you understand this] then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

This description highlights the profound strain that permeated the African American community before Martin Luther King, Jr. ever rose to prominence. The dream of racial equality, too, preceded Martin Luther King, Jr.’s emergence. MLK’s undergraduate mentor, Benjamin E. Mays, urged him to think broadly about racial inequality, and to see his religion (and his background as a preacher’s son) as a potential mechanism for influencing masses of people towards racial justice[3,]( " (2020). Martin Luther King Jr. Biography. ")7.

By the time Martin Luther King, Jr. finished graduate school (with a PhD in Theology) in 1955, the general strain in the African American community was already at a boiling point, and groups were starting to take action. The NAACP, with E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks, were already doing trial runs of the bus boycotts and planning other protest actions to raise awareness of racial injustice.

That’s when MLK decided that, instead of becoming a college professor, he would be a pastor in the community where E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks were starting to get the Civil Rights Movement off the ground. 

Part 2: The Emergence of a Transformational Leader

A transformational leader challenges the people around him/her with a vision for a better world, and through charisma, authenticity, and his/her own exemplary behavior, motivates others to reach for the best within themselves and work tirelessly towards a grand vision. In the process, the people who work for or alongside a transformational leader meet their own needs for meaning in life and work—they grow as people, they are transformed for the better by the experience2.

Transformational leaders can have lots of different personality traits6. However, research has shown that all transformational leaders share two specific values4.

  • Universalism: Transformational leaders see a world of beauty, and love the world at large, even the people they cannot see.
  • Benevolence: Transformational leaders generally respect the people around them (e.g., friends, family, coworkers, employees).

Unsurprisingly, Martin Luther King, Jr. showed early evidence of Benevolence and Universalism values. In his autobiography, Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about how as a child he always directed love at the people around him, and was optimistic about people's nature (showing Benevolence), and his sweeping speeches on the absolute moral good of racial equality clearly illustrate his Universalism7.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Transformational Power

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a profound ability to compel people to act, fight, and sacrifice to achieve a universal vision. In his Autobiography, Martin Luther King, Jr. tells the story of writing his first sermons on racial equality. His goal was to inspire enough passion—to trigger enough of that general strain—that people would be fired up to act, but also to give them the temperance to want to act non-violently to achieve equal rights. He struck the balance perfectly, and inspired (and led) a decade of non-violent protest actions against racial injustice.

Like many transformational leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t give people a new dream—he gave voice to the dream they already had (for racial justice), and showed them how it could be made possible. For all Martin Luther King, Jr.’s influence as a transformational leader, he did not act alone.

Part 3: Inspired People Make Civil Rights Possible

The work of the Civil Rights Movement was very much a group effort. Each time the movement accomplished a milestone, it inspired many others to join and act.

The theory of relational job design holds that one of the most reliable ways to make any work more meaningful is to make it clear to people that their work is benefiting others5. Keeping in mind the beneficiaries of your work also boosts the impact of transformational leaders. When a transformational leader says “We’re going to change people’s lives” and then you actually see those lives changed, you believe and commit more deeply to the organization’s purpose and the leader's vision, because it’s been proven.

For the people working in the Civil Rights Movement, beneficiary contact was built-in. The beneficiaries were their parents, their children, their friends, and themselves. Every victory won bettered the lives of the people closest to them. These experiences likely made the work of civil rights—and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.—even more potent, meaningful, and inspiring to others.

The bus boycotts of 1956 provide a compelling example of collective meaning and inspiration. Following the famous arrest of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and E.D. Nixon distributed flyers urging other African Americans to boycott the city bus system. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. was worried, at first, that African Americans would continue riding the buses. Instead, he watched with shocked pride as buses drove by him completely empty. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks, had transformed and inspired hundreds of African American citizens to sacrifice for a greater good.

Part 4: A National Self-Awareness Cue

A self-awareness cue is an event that forces people to suddenly pay attention to themselves, and compare themselves against an ideal state. The Civil Rights Movement, with all its televised speeches, marches, and nonviolent protests, was effectively a series of massive self-awareness cues for the country. The events in the Civil Rights Movement forced US citizens to ask themselves “Is this who we thought we were? A nation who beats people for trying to eat at a lunch counter because their skin is a different color?”

This was by design. Martin Luther King, Jr. was brilliant at creating non-violent demonstrations that effectively held up a mirror to the country, and revealed its ugly underbelly. Ultimately, the movement succeeded, segregation ended, the Voting Rights Act gave African Americans the right to vote, and the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination.

However, Martin Luther King, Jr. did not work alone. Hundreds of thousands of people participated in marches and speeches and demonstrations. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson both supported Martin Luther King, Jr. privately and through the Civil Rights Act. Finally, dozens of senators and hundreds of congressmen supported the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts.


Transformational leaders can inspire others to do the most meaningful work of their lives. Their leadership impact arises by tapping into a collective yearning or dream and succeeds only with the help of many people who share the charge. In the case of Civil Rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. tapped into the strain of racial prejudice, and inspired thousands to share the purpose of achieving equal rights. May we all accomplish meaningful work together.


  1. Agnew, R. (2001). Building on the foundation of general strain theory: Specifying the types of strain most likely to lead to crime and delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38(4), 319–361.
  2. Bass, B. M. (1999). Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 8(1), 9–32.
  3. (2020). Martin Luther King Jr. Biography.
  4. Fu, P. P., Tsui, A. S., Liu, J., & Li, L. (2010). Pursuit of whose happiness? Executive leaders’ transformational behaviors and personal values. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(2), 222–254.
  5. Grant, A. M. (2007). Relational job design and the motivation to make a prosocial difference. Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 393–417.
  6. Judge, T. A., Higgins, C. A., Thoresen, C. J., & Barrick, M. R. (1999). The big five personality traits, general mental ability, and career success across the life span. Personnel Psychology, 52(3), 621–652.
  7. King, M. L. (2000). Why we can’t wait. Penguin Random House.
© Copyright Coetic 2014-2020. All rights reserved. Updated 2020-09-01.