“Maladjusted” Leaders

File:Martin Luther King Jr NYWTS.jpg

There are some things in our social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

In September 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a group of leaders attending a training seminar at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. As he did in a number of speeches around that period, King concluded his remarks with some thoughts on the word maladjusted. The expression, King pointed out, was the latest and greatest buzzword of modern psychology.

While King acknowledged that living a well-adjusted life was a worthy ambition, he preferred to remain maladjusted to oppression. What’s more, insisted King, he did not intend to adjust his stances against segregation, discrimination, economic injustice, militarism, or physical violence. Instead, he aspired to follow the examples of such maladjusted individuals as Amos, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Jesus Christ—great leaders who refused to adjust their values or ignore the societal evils of their days.

As our nation celebrates the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I can think of no better way of honoring his memory than by accepting the challenge he offered his followers in 1957:

I call upon you to be maladjusted.”

Whether they’re battling oppression in the world, confronting inequities in their communities, or questioning the status quo at work, the best leaders dare to be maladjusted. Won’t you?

“The world is in desperate need of such maladjustment,” King told his audience that late summer day more than a half century ago. Indeed, the world still is today.

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George Brymer is author of Vital Integrities and the creator of The Leading from the Heart Workshop®.
He can be reached at george.brymer@allsquareinc.com

Image Sources: en.wikipedia.org

3 responses to ““Maladjusted” Leaders

  1. I totally agree with this article. MLK showed leadership by promoting a better way, by having the courage to challenge the status quo. It is important, though, to note that he was promoting change to the general population and to government from the sidelines, not to a group that he was in charge of. His leadership had nothing to do with getting something done through a group of people that reported to him. This shows, to me, that leadership is really just about promoting a better way. This fits with what I call bottom-up leadership where employees promote changes to products or services. Again, they are not in charge of their bosses, even informally. But if this is leadership and it has nothing to do with getting things done through people, then we need to upgrade management to take care of everything that many people now attribute to leadership.


  2. Good point, Mitch. We often think that leadership requires authority, when in fact it’s the ability to influence behavior at any level that marks a true leader.


  3. Glad you liked my point George, but I feel I am fighting an uphill battle. The prevailing view of leadership associates it with being in charge. But there is a recognition that the world has become too complex for any one person to know it all so it is becoming popular to reframe leadership as a facilitative activity as in Jim Collins with his level 5 leadership. Some writers acknowledge that leadership has something to do with challenging the status quo. Kouzes & Posner, for example, have 5 ways, one of which they call “challenging the process” – unfortunately, however, they water it down by saying that leaders don’t so much challenge the process as make it possible for others to do so. This is a cop out, in my view. It preserves the status quo that being in charge is what it means to be a leader but we are in grave danger of losing sight of the importance of actually challenging the status quo as the essence of leadership. I have written a lot on this subject, but my short answer to solving this problem is that we need to upgrade management to take care of getting things done through others so we can focus leadership on promoting a better way.


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