Ambassador James A. Joseph

The following is a transcript of Ambassador James A. Joseph’s keynote address delivered at Coro Pittsburgh’s 10th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards, on January 28th, 2017 at the DoubleTree Hotel Downtown Pittsburgh. This speech is copyrighted and should not be quoted without attribution.

As people gathered last week in solemn assemblies and joyous celebrations around the world, many used memorable moments from the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King to challenge and inspire us as individuals and to help support, secure and sustain our union as a people. Some used magical metaphors from this truly American story to remember him as a social reformer while others remembered him as an authentic American hero.

While each of these speaks to the measure of the man, this tenth annual leadership awards event provides an opportunity to remember him as a leader who brought a new civility to the struggle for social change, a new realism about the meandering trajectory of social reform and a new narrative about the role of hope in times of adversity. I want thus to suggest that leadership for Martin Luther King was a way of being with four elements that should have great relevance for our own time.

Emotional Intelligence

The first is familiar to most of us. Daniel Goldman called it emotional intelligence, the need for empathy, self-awareness and self-control. But long before Goleman’s conclusion from scientific study, my favorite high school teacher liked to quote from his favorite poet and remind us that “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, someday you will be a man my son.” I am sure that today Rudyard Kipling would use more inclusive language, but the message should apply to all those who seek to be the adult in the room when emotions are running high and civility is a distant memory.

It is emotional intelligence that shapes temperament as well as the capacity for judgement and compassion, but it also reminds us that we must be at ease with ourselves before we can be at ease with others. That is why in my work with young leaders in Southern Africa and in the Southern United States, I often asked the question posed by Oriah the Mountain Dreamer, “Can you be alone with yourself and still like the company you keep?”

While my own grounding in what Goleman called emotional intelligence has been critical, I found in both Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela three other elements of leadership that we should seek to cultivate, encourage or activate in the next generation of leaders.

Moral Intelligence

Alongside emotional intelligence, Martin Luther King had a keen sense of moral intelligence. He saw ethics as a guide for behavior rather than simply a tool for criticizing the behavior of others. He was as concerned with the public values that build community as he was with the private virtues that build character. I make that distinction because when I joined with three other ministers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1963 to launch the local civil rights movement, we were all over the map in our approach to holiness and in religious affiliation. We even differed on the private virtues that our faith communities proclaimed as absolutes, but we were united in our appeal to the public values our faith traditions shared with the Constitution in its emphasis on justice, tranquility and the public welfare.  

That almost sacred document began with the phrase “We the people,” but it did not include people who look like me as full persons in its original prescription for the new democracy. Those who wrote the document had the language right, however, when they suggested in the preamble that in order to form a more perfect union we would have to establish justice and in order to ensure domestic tranquility we would have to promote the general welfare. The preamble also committed us to providing for the common defense, but modern day patriots like Martin Luther King have reminded us that the best way to demonstrate the efficacy of our democracy to critics and adversaries abroad is to demonstrate that it can work equitably for all of our citizens at home.

I use the word patriot to describe the life and work of Martin Luther King because it is important for all of us to understand that this definition of civic virtue should apply to all those who work to sustain and strengthen our union. I served my country as an officer in the United States Army and I served my country as a diplomat abroad, but I felt just as patriotic when I was helping to organize and later lead the civil rights movement in Tuscaloosa, Alabama or chairing the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Let there be no doubt about it. Those of you in this room are the true patriots. Not just those who we honor tonight, but everyone who is engaged in the effort to form a more perfect union. Now  is the time to set the record straight about the King legacy and to recall not just his loving embrace of humanity in its fullness, but to also remember his prophetic anger at the abuse of power and the misuse of our potential for building what he called a beloved community.

Dr. King was a patriot, however, who understood the difference between patriotism that leads to community and patriotism that leads to tribalism. One affirms a sense of loyalty to the group that shapes a broad sense of belonging or identity. The other also includes loyalty to a group, but it is combined with a strong negative feeling for people outside the group.

Social Intelligence

The third element that stood out in Martin Luther King’s leadership is probably best described as social intelligence. I don’t pretend to know what he would say today about racial healing and the demonizing of those who differ in race and religion or culture and color; but I feel certain he would remind us that diversity need not divide, that pluralism rightly understood and rightly practiced is a benefit and not a burden, and that the fear of difference is a fear of the future. To those who feel threatened by the many ways in which our nation is changing, he would probably remind us that the American society is never fixed or final. Our greatness lies in the fact that we are a nation that is always in the making. To those worried that this remaking of America poses a threat to American identity and American values, he would probably remind us in the words of Maya Angelou that we are more alike than unalike.

His idea of what he described as a beloved community is probably best expressed in the language of his old professor and mentor, the mystic, theologian and poet Howard Thurman, who was fond of saying “I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.” That is precisely the message that should be a part of the elevator speech of all of us who are community organizers, civic leaders and advocates for a more just and equitable society.

Can you imagine how different our world would be if more Americans were able to say “I want to be an American without making it difficult for an Asian to be an Asian, an African to be an African or an Arab to be an Arab?” Can you imagine how different our communities would be if more Christians were able to say “I want to be a Christian without making it difficult for a Jew to be a Jew, a Muslim to be a Muslim or a Buddhist to be a Buddhist?”  I am certain that Martin Luther King would say I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.   

I am increasingly persuaded that successful leadership in badly divided communities requires leaders who understand that racism and inequality are socially corrosive and that communities are stronger and the quality of life is better when we join together to extend opportunity and promote fairness for all those who do not presently benefit from the potential of work or the promise of wealth.

The decline of civility in our national life is most evident in our selection of leaders to guide our public life. It was not too long ago that we searched for leaders like Martin Luther King who inspired us, elevated us and appealed to our better nature.  Far too many Americans now search for leaders who look like them, act like them, talk like them and think like them, if they think at all. Martin Luther King would warn us that this romanticizing of ordinariness is dangerous to our future.

Some observers argue that hatred of the other, the fear of difference, whether because of gender, race, sexual orientation or national origin has made a comeback. Martin Luther King would probably argue that the issue is not whether hate is back, but why have we allowed a few loud and angry voices to assume that it is socially acceptable to use hostile and demeaning public rhetoric to destroy the dignity, deny the humanity and de-legitimize those with whom they differ. Now is the time for a new civility worthy of the legacy of Martin Luther King.

Spiritual Intelligence

The final element of leadership that we find in the life and legacy of Dr. King is what I like to call spiritual intelligence. And here I refer to something that is not just the capacity to find meaning in mystery, but a quality of the human spirit that helps cultivate openness to the unknown, the unexpected and the unexplored. I have learned much over the years about the importance of being in touch with the inner self and at ease with my own strengths and weaknesses. I have found that I am happiest and most at harmony with myself and others when I practice compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and patience. I have found inspiration also from others with whom I have felt a deepened sense of presence.

I emphasize spiritual intelligence and argue for the cultivation of our spiritual nature to emphasize that the effective leader must be not just an agent of reconciliation but a purveyor of hope. And here I have in mind something very different from optimism. Hope theologians and hope psychologists both argue that optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going to get better. Hope, on the other hand, enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to make things better.

Researchers are now trying to understand the role of hope in sustaining innovation; the relationship of hope levels to stress, commitment and performance; even the impact of hope in business organizations on profits, job satisfaction and retention rates. Hope provides a good metaphor for understanding the role and importance of spiritual intelligence. But it is the kind of hope that Vaclav Havel, a European leader who deliberately set out to emulate Martin Luther King, had in mind when he said, “I could not accomplish anything if I did not have hope within me; for the gift of hope is as big a gift as the gift of life itself.”

So when you leave here tonight and return to institutions and programs that are often under-funded, communities and neighborhoods where some people are doing well, but others are suffering great pain, please remember that now is the time to provide not just help but also hope; for the gift of hope is as big a gift as the gift of life itself. Thank you and keep the faith.


Ambassador James A. Joseph has served in executive or advisory positions for four U.S. presidents, including Ambassador to South Africa for President Clinton and Under Secretary of the Interior for President Carter. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University where he was also the founding director of the United States – Southern Africa Center for Leadership and Public Values, a partnership between Duke and the University of Cape Town. Honored by the Republic of South Africa with the highest award bestowed on a citizen of another country, he was named a Louisiana Legend by his home state and elected to the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame.

If you wish to connect with Ambassador Joseph, he can be reached at