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    Faculty Blog: Howard Thurman '23 - "On Translating the Ideal of Leadership into Service"

    May 5, 2023


    One of the luminaries of Morehouse College, and an exemplar of social justice-oriented leadership, Howard Thurman ’23, graduated 100 years ago. Reverend Otis Moss, himself an unsung hero of the civil rights movement, suggests that while Thurman “did not march from Selma to Montgomery, or many of the other marches, he participated at the level that shapes the philosophy that creates the march – and without that, people don’t know what to do before the march, while they march, or after they march.”  Although Thurman “never considered himself as any kind of leader” nor “a movement man,” writes Albert Raboteau, “Thurman believed that true social change must be grounded in spiritual experience and personal transformation.” It is in this sense that Thurman was a leader among leaders.


    Howard Thurman, Morehouse College, 1923.


    In a 1960 Address at Boston University, Thurman described character development as the basis for what Walter Fluker called—in Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community (1998)—a “visionary public leadership.” Thurman suggests that:

    One of the most searching demands of leadership is integrity and honesty. The leader must above all else be a seeker of truth. In his private life of thought and deed he must not violate the ideals which he embraces in his role as the leader of others. The integrity of the act cannot be separated from the integrity of the person and the word. Therefore, the leader must seek truth. He must seek the truth about himself. 

    Thurman thought that a leader must “accept himself for who he is” and “at long last say ‘yes’ to his own basic equipment.” Although one “may not be as brilliant or as able as someone else seems to be,” nor have “the kind of charm that attracts others to him in the way that someone else can,” nor “have the advantages of background and family heritage that someone else can claim,” wrote Thurman, one can still become an outstanding leader. 

    For Thurman as for King, leadership began with in an internal readiness to serve as “a drum major for justice.” Like Thurman, King advocated for a “new norm a greatness” by which “everyone can be great because everyone can serve.” In his 1968 “Drum Major Instinct,” King claimed: 

    You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t need to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second law of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

    One of the most searching demands of leadership consists in “taking responsibility for [one’s] own actions.” Indeed:

    True it is that there is an etiquette and sometimes what seems to be a morality of office that leaves little room for the integrity of the person. But that fact does not provide an alibi for shifting responsibility to the position or office which one holds. It is a man who is the chairman, or the president or the leader. As a man he is responsible for his actions in his office. Life does no know about status, position, or place, it knows only that the man, the living, the breathing man, is a responsible agent however he may function in his roles.

    What Thurman says here is especially poignant when considering the socio-ethical status of a corporation and the agency or responsibility of those who operate it. An institution or corporation may not have a conscience, Thurman would admit, but those in leadership positions within a corporation must take responsibility for the decisions they make and for the lives affected by those decisions. In addition to taking responsibilities for one’s actions, Thurman suggests that a socio-ethical leader must also “be willing to take responsibility for his reactions.” Though much of what occurs in our lives is out of our control, “the true character of the person is often revealed” by our reaction to what occurs. What Thurman observed in 1960 is doubly true today: 

    We are living in a time of revolutions, technological and social. Our reaction to these revolutions may be one of fear, panic, and despair. We may in our reaction be stripped of all hope and all confidence not only about the meaning of our own lives but about the significance of the future of mankind. Or we may in our reaction be inspired to deeper commitment to higher purposes and more meaningful resolves to the end that in us the dreams of mankind that are cherished will be worked at with fresh vigor and new hope. How we react is our responsibility – and from this there is no escape.

    All of this belongs, thought Thurman, to the socio-ethical mandate that leaders seek the truth: not only the truth about themselves, about who they are and what they stand for, but leaders must also seek the truth about their society. The responsible leader is “able to assess it properly and clearly.” The truth about one’s society entails yet another socio-ethical maxim: 

    The leader must know that what he condemns in others he dare not encourage in himself. The ideals which he demands of the political or social life of his times must not be other than the ideal which he cherishes for himself. In doing so he will discover that at long last the only place of refuge for any man in the world is in his own heart. 

    Jesse Jackson claimed that Thurman “sowed the seeds that bred a generation of activists who tore down ancient walls of oppression” and “blew away the philosophical underpinnings of racism and segregation” in his “emphasis on the spiritual dimensions of social transformation.” This socio-ethical model of leadership at Morehouse was less about ‘self-preservation’ than ‘other-preservation.’ McGuire and Hutchens write that “all great leaders have wrestled with their souls” and “that such personal searching is essential to the development of leaders.” 

    Rufus Burrow argues that leaders such as King understood that “the mark of the truly educated person is extreme uneasiness with things as they are for the vast majority of people in society.” This uneasiness with things as they are is a constant refrain in the social justice-oriented leadership legacy at Morehouse. Just as President Mays claimed that he was “uneasy about man because we have no guarantee that when we train a man’s mind, we will train his heart: no guarantee that when we increase a man’s knowledge, we will increase his goodness” (1969), King called upon leaders to be dissatisfied and creatively maladjusted: “The world is in desperate need of such maladjustment,” suggested King in 1957, since it is only “through maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man and into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.” 

    The education that Martin Luther King ’48 received at Morehouse, not altogether unlike the one that Howard Thurman ’23 received twenty-five years earlier, emphasized critical thinking, certainly, but it also cultivated a sensitive heart and nourished a strong will. And while it is true that Thurman and King personified or otherwise exemplified distinct if not unique models of leadership, Morehouse College placed a crown above both their heads and succeeded in – as Carter Woodson put it – “translating the idea of leadership into that of service.”

    Kipton E. Jensen, Ph.D. is an associate professor of philosophy at Morehouse College and the director of the leadership studies program in the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership, where he also serves as a coordinator for the Prison Education Initiative. He has published two books on Thurman: Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus (Orbis) and Howard Thurman: Philosophy, Civil Rights, and the Search for Common Ground (University of South Carolina Press).

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