MLK - A Legacy of Leading Without Authority

The reason why we lead without authority is because there’s a scarcity of leadership from people with authority.  People who try to exercise leadership without authority are often perceived as deviants and troublemakers.  The fact that they are trying to gain something that they do not have is the issue.  When people take on informal authority it is because they do not see leadership being executed.  This is leading without authority.


            The life of Martin Luther King is a testament to the virtue of leading without authority.  King challenged the status quo and sought to paint a vision of the future in broad yet defining strokes.  He championed unity as a means to an end where all Americans are bound not by race or economic status but by the inherent values as individuals.  But to achieve his dream the only option available to him was to lead without authority.

            Because he did not have a defined constituency and that he lacked the authenticity of an elected official he used a multiplicity of venues to reach a greater audience across America.  The battle was fought on the streets of Alabama, nonviolent protests, in the court System, in the bus terminals and in small town diners.

            Martin Luther King, Jr. did not allow the fact that he had no formal authority to keep him from leading.  He successfully exercised leadership from the root of the table, from outside the formal organization and left a legacy on the virtue of leadership.  The reason why Martin was able to lead successfully was because he had in place a wide network of informal authority in the community at large and he used this informal authority to recruit and excite people about the possibility of a better future. 

            Leaders gain informal authority when they have the respect of a diverse audience with a compelling urgency to bring forth change.  It happens best when people believe in the leader, trust his judgment and the leader uses the moral persuasion needed to convince people to want to be led.  At a minimum, Martin’s sense of constructive impatience was a strong motivation to the many Blacks of his day who saw a courageous man with the audacity to challenge the establishment.   

            People who lead without authority know how to seize the moment, focus attention on the issue.  They do not seek permission but have a sense of purpose.  Martin Luther King was not an elected politician; he did not have a formal constituency; but demonstrated a compelling urgency to challenge the system.

            This begs the question – Why do people lead without authority?  First, they lead without authority when there’s an absence of authority…when there’s an absence of leadership…and so when the people that are supposed to be leading fail, it is Mavericks like Martin who move to fill the vacuum of leadership. 

            I have found key lessons from the life of Martin Luther King that is applicable to the challenges that we all face at our various organizations.  Martin was an inspiration to all of us because he showed us how to lead from where we are.  He showed us that leadership is best exercised when there is a cause.  Martin showed us how to transform society.

            But, the problem about leading without authority is that it is a dangerous expedition, because it often over-simplifies the complexity of the situation and underestimates the reaction that will come from the establishment.  When you lead without authority, the real authority is unwilling to sit idly by and watch things unfold.  For those with the courage to lead, it is a noble calling that may bring unanticipated consequences. 

            MLK was assassinated in the midst of his leadership journey.  His life was cut short in the prime of his life and his effort to transform a divided nation.  Yet he was successful in translating an ideal to a cause and ultimately into results.  Even in his absence the dream unfolded over time. 

            The ability to lead without authority is present even among us today.  You see it occurring with people that believe passionately in what they are doing and are not deterred by cynicism and fear.  We need more people that are willing to take a stand for what is noble and what is right, individuals who are not content with things as they are and are eager to make things better.

            I believe everybody ultimately gets the opportunity to lead without authority.  It is that defining moment in our lives when we are asked to step up to the plate and say “I’m going to stand for what is right when principle is more than a word, when we develop the capacity to see around corners.  Martin recognized that the future belongs to those who can see it. His I Have A Dream conversation with America gave us a blueprint on leading and assures us all that it is within us 

            As we celebrate the life and contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. I urge you to remember that he taught us not to be afraid to lead from where we are.  He showed us that status quo is not an acceptable option.  He challenged us to look beyond our present and to create a future that is greater, better and more fulfilling.  Martin showed us that we all have moral authority and to lead without authority. 

Benjamin Ola. Akande, Ph.D. President BOA Consulting, St. Louis, Missouri

Benjamin Akande

Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the president of BOA Consulting and former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.