Dr. King and the Cognitive Dimension of Leadership

Senator Hillary Clinton's remarks this month about the roles and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson provided fodder for countless blogs, opinion columns, and radio and television programs. While many have argued about the intent of Clinton's comments, the discussion has largely glossed over the unconventional nature of Dr. King's leadership and the type of change he sought. Without an understanding of the cognitive dimension of the leadership that Dr. King embodied, we cannot fully appreciate his achievements or hope to effect the lasting changes that our world demands.

The initial comments that Senator Clinton offered about Dr. King and President Johnson (below) stirred controversy in the African-American community and beyond, yielding a debate about whether she was elevating Johnson above King as a hero of the struggle for civil rights.

"I would point to the fact that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality. The power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said, 'We are going to do it,' and actually got it accomplished."

Clinton's subsequent expressions of praise for Dr. King's work and appreciation of his sacrifices suggest that she sought not to diminish the role of Dr. King, but rather to claim that change becomes real when a president is committed to enacting legislation and possesses the political skill needed to get it through Congress. For students of politics and politicians alike, Lyndon Johnson remains the epitome of the skillful politician, a fact that supports this reading. Johnson gained renown in the Senate for his thorough knowledge of his colleagues and his ability to obtain their votes for legislation he favored, whether through horse-trading, arm-twisting, or other methods available to the consummate Washington insider. This skill served him well as President and undeniably played an important role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, overcoming the resistance of many in his own party in the process.

To some, this is the real work of politics: the unsung, back-room work of the tough-minded insider that produces laws that change lives. In such a view, soaring oratory is, at best, a means of drawing a crowd to apply pressure on legislators to vote this way or that, a roundabout way of lobbying the insiders who matter.

But such a view fundamentally misses what Dr. King sought to achieve and how he sought to achieve it. In his mission to ensure that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, Dr. King took a decidedly long view, focusing not on mere lobbying for the legislation of the day, but on defining the moral imperatives of the nation to compel action for generations to come. Progress tends to be fragile and often proves illusory when it is the product of political insiders who fail to engage the broader citizenry. Dr. King, by contrast, led by revealing the hidden truths, narratives, and moral premises that compel action.

At the Rockridge Institute, we have coined the term cognitive policy to describe the set of ideas and values that underlie a legislative or social policy, concepts that must be made real to the public to secure lasting support for a material policy, such as a law. The Social Security Act signed by President Franklin Roosevelt provides a simple example of what an effective cognitive policy can mean. Generations have passed, but most Americans retain a basic understanding that Social Security means that those who are employed today pay a share of their income to extend protection to the elderly because we have a shared responsibility to protect people from insecurities that no one can face alone and that we may one day face. If we call the truths and moral principles that citizens must recognize in order to support change a cognitive policy, then we must regard Dr. King as an exemplar of leadership along this cognitive dimension.

As Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center has observed, there is a reason why Dr. King's most famous speech was not called, "I have a complaint," nor, one might add, "I have a ten-point plan." Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech aimed to define as much as to inspire, retelling the story of America as an unfulfilled promise that history compels us to honor:

"In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now."

Notably, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Dr. King delivered the address did not have just one purpose, nor did Dr. King's speech that day refer to any pending legislation. No single piece of legislation could fulfill the promise that he articulated. Instead, he gave us a narrative of American history that demonstrated the centrality of struggles that had long been marginalized, and the necessity of actions that had long been deferred.

In an age in which politicians respond to questions by boasting of comprehensive plans on their websites, it would be easy to fault Dr. King's speech that day or his other well-known pronouncements as short on specifics and overly reliant upon an emotional appeal. At least, that is what we might conclude were we to judge him as our politicians tend to judge each other today. Such a view would, of course, be shortsighted. While we have grown accustomed to politicians who campaign for health care legislation, for example, by proclaiming that it will reduce costs by X%, will cover Y million people, and has been endorsed by organization Z, we know that such fact dumps leave us uninspired and move few to action. We must instead identify the moral premises that compel us to act to secure health care for all. Our current knowledge of cognitive science demonstrates why the rational appeals to which most politicians limit themselves fail, something that Madison Avenue has long known. Unlike advertisers, however, our greatest moral leaders, including Dr. King, have been those who engage our emotions and transform the stories we tell ourselves while remaining faithful to our shared values and accurate in their characterizations of our world.

While many praise Dr. King for his inspirational oratory, we must remember that the leadership along the cognitive dimension that King embodied is chiefly about holding fast to the truth, not about rhetorical eloquence. This should come as no surprise given Dr. King's study of satyagraha, the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, which can be translated as "holding the truth." Satyagraha is often described as non-violence, and is more frequently used to describe the types of demonstrations that Gandhi and later King organized. (In that context, Dr. King referred to it as "soul force.") But satyagraha also means speaking truths and revealing moral imperatives without fear, though they may challenge the preconceived notions of one's compatriots and may offend those who hold greater physical force.

We are often asked at the Rockridge Institute about how to "frame" an issue to support a policy, such as withdrawal from Iraq or action to protect our climate. While we welcome such questions and continue to answer them, it is important to recognize that framing issues accurately and enacting cognitive policies that define moral premises are not new. Rather, the cognitive science upon which our work depends has just begun to reveal the genius that is at work when a leader such as Martin Luther King Jr. transforms our understanding of our world and the role that we must play in it. Politicians who believe that people act (or should act) dispassionately based upon rational analysis would do well to delve deeper into the meaning of Dr. King's life, as well as recent discoveries in cognitive science that demonstrate that emotions and morality are integral to our reasoning.

Evan Frisch is the Rockridge Institute's Technology Strategist.

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