Martin Luther King’s Emotional Intelligence: Spiritual Leadership and “Emotional Regulation Strategy”

Psychologist/educators Diana Divecha and Robin Stern analyzed Martin Luther King’s emotional intelligence this week in the Huffington Post, Black Voices section. Looking at his “I Have a Dream” speech, they analyzed the ways he evoked strong emotions, named powerful emotional experiences, integrated values and emotional insights and motivated listeners with positive emotional reframing. Most interesting to me was their insights into his “emotional regulation strategies,” of vital importance for success expanding the non-violent leadership and protest approach of the civil rights movement.

“Emotional regulation strategies:” the phrase struck a chord in me. It seems that every leader, especially those of us devoted to larger values, bigger visions, needs to offer these strategies. Change is hard, deep change harder.  Change triggers meltdowns and breakthroughs, each with its own emotional challenges. A good leader knows how to inspire people to join together and support each other through these challenges.
Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

MLK was a spiritual leader, a consummate preacher/teacher. It’s fitting that we talk about emotional intelligence with him in mind, reminding us that there’s an element of spiritual transformation in social change, in any change, for that matter. Because we are, innately, as spiritual as we are physical and emotional.
And change has to happen on all three levels to “stick.”

Divecha and Stern wrote: “It is a basic human need to be seen and understood, and Dr. King’s empathy let his listeners “feel felt.” He acknowledged their suffering by saying, for example, “Some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation.” And he named their experiences, acknowledging that they’d been jailed, discriminated against, blocked from the pursuit of happiness. He connected with his audience by naming the values they shared and their vision of the future. He felt, and transmitted, compassion.”

Compassion: perhaps the most effective emotional regulation strategy for leaders on every level. It’s a practical, spiritual strength, as well as a value, a quality and discipline.


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