One of the challenges for leaders is how to respond to an ethical dilemma, especially when your decision places you at odds with the mainstream. It is absolutely imperative that as leaders, we allow our behavior to be shaped by integrity. Weighing right versus wrong is not optional. Our core values must lay the foundation for how we choose to approach ethical decisions. A leader who operates with integrity will practice what he or she preaches, regardless of personal emotions and society’s opinion pressuring them to do otherwise. The litmus test for making ethical decisions: how would you feel if your actions were captured in tomorrow’s headlines?
One leader whom I admire is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Certainly, his decisions made headlines during the Civil Rights Movement. He challenged the thinking and actions of millions of Americans, and his legacy continues to influence leadership practices and principles. Dr. King was arrested in 1963 for breaking the law. We are taught that laws must be obeyed; otherwise we face the consequences of choosing not to obey. However, the legal laws that were being enforced consistently broke moral codes. Therefore, Dr. King felt that he had an ethical and moral responsibility to change those laws. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” expresses his response to those who held him accountable for his actions.
Dr. King wrote this letter during a less than expedient time in American history where segregation was legal in the South. It was legal to deprive Black citizens of their constitutional right for equality. Jim Crow Laws plagued the southern region. Negro citizens were expected to obey a set of laws that were demeaning and aimed at instilling an inferiority complex.
Dr. King was not talking to foreigners or to an audience oblivious to the treatment of Negro citizens. He was speaking to an audience who had witnessed and experienced these conditions. Complacency can cloud one’s ethical judgment. The black and white clergy to whom this letter was addressed were not blind to the oppressed conditions in Birmingham. Yet, they were willing to appease the status quo and condemn a man who wanted to help them. One group in society made the decision that they were superior to another group and created laws to justify their decision. To Dr. King, this made their laws unjust and fortified his reason to break those unjust laws. As St. Augustine once said, “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Let’s examine the specific reason that Dr. King was arrested. What law did he break? Dr. King was charged with “parading without a permit.” The white power structure in Birmingham decided that because they refused to change their segregated lifestyle, they needed to find a way to besmirch Dr. King’s reputation and attempted to use coercive power to change his behavior.
Dr. King and his followers did not make a rash decision. They attempted to engage the white power structure in conversation to express their concerns. They received empty promises which were made only to prevent demonstrations and ensure revenue from the Negro community. Thus, they prepared themselves for a nonviolent demonstration. The demonstration was a last resort after other diplomatic attempts to resolve the issue had failed. How could Dr. King sit idle, lulled by complacency, and consider himself a leader? He could not.
Dr. King’s obligation and commitment to elevating purpose not only led to his decision to accept the consequences of breaking the “law” in Birmingham, but also guided him throughout the Civil Rights Movement, even unto death. Dr. King felt obligated to answer the call on his life to improve the living conditions of black people in American society.
Leaders must stand for what they believe in, no matter the cost. Actually, when considering the costs, a true leader becomes more determined. The leader has accepted the responsibility of the consequences. Dr. King was prepared to accept the penalty for breaking the law. He held himself ethically accountable for his actions. In doing this, Dr. King expressed “the highest respect for law.”
Even if you do not consider yourself a leader, you should have an ethical code. Laws are made to regulate behavior. Ethics exists to resolve internal conflict when faced with a dilemma. Ethics is making choices which determine how a person responds to a particular situation with honesty and accountability. Legislating ethics does not change the intent of a person’s heart, and does not lead to ethically responsible behavior.
If rather, our fundamental values are shaped by situations or dilemmas, we risk the appearance of being as unstable as water. Followers are confused and uncertain about in which direction they are being led. People may not agree with the leader’s position. However, the leader is respected for remaining steadfast in his or her values and beliefs.
King, Jr., M.L.K. (1963). Letter from Birmingham jail. Atlanta: Courtesy The King Center.