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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

Learning to Channel Anger for Good

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Martin Luther King Jr. was a great leader, but like many great leaders he had to learn how to channel his anger productively.  Average leaders focus on results, and that’s it. Good leaders focus also on the behaviors that will get the results. And Great leaders focus, in addition, on the emotions that will drive these behaviors.

Hitendra Wadhwa, a professor at Columbia Business School writes about how Martin Luther King Jr. knew of the power that came packed in this emotion.

In his autobiography, King wrote about an incident that occurred in 1943: When I was 14, I traveled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley (to) participate in an oratorical contest. We were on a bus returning to Atlanta. Along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us. I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. We stood up in the aisle for 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”

Great leaders often have a strong capacity to experience anger. It wakes them up and makes them pay attention to what is wrong in their environment, or in themselves. Without anger, they would not have the awareness or the drive to fix what is wrong.

But they also know the downside of anger, and wage a firm battle to tame it within themselves. One such moment for King came when, in December 1955, he led talks with the authorities in Montgomery, Alabama on negotiating the end of the bus boycott that was hurting both whites and African-Americans. He realized that the whites were not ready to give up their segregation privileges, the talks were heading for a stalemate, and, what was more, the other party was trying to portray King as the sole stumbling block to an agreement.

“That Monday I went home with a heavy heart,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I was weighed down by a terrible sense of guilt, remembering that on two or three occasions I had allowed myself to become angry and indignant. I had spoken hastily and resentfully. Yet I knew that this was no way to solve a problem. ‘You must not harbor anger,’ I admonished myself. ‘You must be willing to suffer the anger of the opponent, and yet not return anger. You must not become bitter. No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm.'”

Only by taming his own anger did King earn the right to become a messenger of peaceful struggle to the people of the nation. An acid test came his way on a night in 1956 when his home in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by white extremists. In his autobiography, he wrote: “While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I was once more on the verge of corroding hatred. And once more I caught myself and said: ‘You must not allow yourself to become bitter’.”

In September 1962, as King sat on the stage during a Southern Christian Leadership Convention, a white member of the Nazi party jumped up to the podium and punched him several times in the face. As the security guards rushed to his help and pulled away the hate-filled youth, King responded, calmly, that he would not press charges. In response, he said in Martin Luther King on Leadership: “The system that we live under creates people such as this youth. I am not interested in pressing charges. I’m interested in changing the kind of system that produces this kind of man.”

In these moments, he wasn’t trying to crush his anger, or that of the people. He was trying to channel it into a higher purpose.

Great leaders do not ignore their anger, nor do they allow themselves to get consumed by it. Instead, they channel the emotion into energy, commitment, sacrifice, and purpose. They use it to step up their game. And they infuse people around them with this form of constructive anger so they, too, can be infused with energy commitment, sacrifice and purpose. In the words of King in Freedom ways magazine in 1968, “The supreme task of a leader is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.”

Wouldn’t it be great if the politicians “our so called” leaders in the United States would take some of these examples to heart today.  I bet they would accomplish a whole lot more than they do today, with less money I might add.

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