Ethical leadership & compassionate listening

Hierarchy and authoritarian control told only part of the story of King’s leadership. They contrasted with, yet made room for, his keen ability to listen, to pay attention, to learn. People who knew him were struck by his gift for patient listening. Top-down control resonated with democratic intimacy to produce a mode of leadership whose authority, whose claim to obedience and loyalty, was rooted in his engaged relationship with other leaders and followers. His leadership offered a trusted setting for freewheeling deliberation and dissent, encouraging conflict but keeping it in bounds. His charisma and personal power, like that of Lincoln, another grand master of the authority and democracy dialectic, proved compelling because they were embedded in a personal connection, felt as mystical by some. He sought to create with participants the “I and Thou” relationship that he held as a personalist ideal.

Over the years he had striven to exercise authority with compassionate understanding, even if the former often trumped the latter. Although he knew that he had made mistakes, had been undemocratic and manipulative at times, he was drawn to the “personal, deep communication” politics that animated younger activists. Despite his authoritarian manner, he had exemplified reciprocal leadership through fostering relationship. A decade of democracy in the streets, which he had helped midwife, could not have helped but wean him from his black Baptist orientation of preacher as boss. He was searching for better ways to express loving power and powerful love. [331-32]

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