Toughminded and Tenderhearted Leaders: A Celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“A nation or civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an opportunity to reflect on his ideas and their relevance to Darden’s mission, to “improve society by developing principled leaders in the world of practical affairs.” Events are planned at Darden, the University of Virginia and the City of Charlottesville to observe the holiday. Let me offer one prologue to the observance.

King’s famous quotation has challenged me several times—as an educator, I would like to shape the kind of people who will have a wonderful impact in the world. What must we do to produce those people? In this regard, King’s quotation and the book from which it was drawn, Strength to Love, have quite a lot of advice to give.

The context of the quotation was King’s fight against racism in the U.S. Published in 1963, his book sought to prepare activists for nonviolent resistance. What were they fighting, and what kinds of people were needed to lead the fight?

King argued, “Softmindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice…Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings.“ He said that softminded people are gullible; they “take the printed word of the press as final truth….Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts. One of the great needs of mankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda.” Softminded people are superstitious; they fear change; they are easily exploited. To illustrate the ways of manipulating softminded people, King quoted Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf : “I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few. By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell—and hell, heaven…the greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed.”

What is the alternative to softmindedness? King called it “toughmindedness”: “characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment. The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong, austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment. Who doubts that this toughness of mind is one of man’s greatest needs? Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

But King argued that “we must not stop with the cultivation of a tough mind…What is more tragic than to see a person who has risen to the disciplined heights of toughmindedness but has at the same time sunk to the passionless depths of hardheartedness?” King was no advocate for utilitarianism, or “hardheartedness” as he called it. He feared that a compassionless person would ultimately descend into hatred, bitterness, and violence, especially in fighting racism. Instead, he argued for a third way that combined toughmindedness and tenderheartedness “that avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the softminded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”

King’s relevance for business school students and educators is huge. We are in the business of developing leaders. The world is awash in technocrats; leadership is in perennially short supply. I’ve known leaders who were just toughminded and other leaders who were just tenderhearted. But they simply weren’t as effective as the leaders who were both toughminded and tenderhearted. King challenges us to shape ourselves and our courses in ways that bridge both attributes. Obviously, this is not easy. King wrote, “The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites. Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.”

What might this fruitful harmony look like from the standpoint of MBA graduates? They are people in whom toughmindedness and tenderheartedness not only coexist, but also inform each other. Such people assume positive intent in others, but also check the thinking of others. They are candid in their assessments; but their candor aims to lift others, not tear them down. They look to be part of solutions, not just finders of problems. To their outstanding analysis of problems and opportunities they bring wide-angle social awareness and moral consciousness, the capacity to challenge assumptions inspired by deep norms and values. They have a bias for action motivated by a deep affinity for others. In these and other respects, they lead out of a conscious desire to serve others.

We aim to develop these kinds of leaders at Darden. In our admissions, we look for people who are ready to grow in both ways. Our courses blend deep analytics, critical thinking, ethics, and leadership. Every class session promotes the capacity to question and shape a course of action. Our intensive use of learning teams, project groups, simulations, and plenary discussions reinforces a collaborative approach to problem solving. And many of our faculty members, through their thought-leading research, model these virtues.

In tomorrow’s observation of Martin Luther King Jr. day, Darden will host Professor Clayborne Carson, a history Professor at Stanford University and noted King scholar, who will speak on “King’s Vision of Globalization: Leadership Lessons.” Through this event and others, let us pause to reflect on King’s ideas and celebrate the example of his own leadership—toughminded and tenderhearted. He is highly relevant to our understanding of the attributes to which we should all aspire.

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One Response to Toughminded and Tenderhearted Leaders: A Celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Marianne Dean '89 says:

    BRAVO! Thank you Dean Bruner for this piece. I am sending it to many including my college and high school age children. This is the sort of person our country/world needs more of.

    In a business context, a hardminded/softhearted person reminds me of what the leaders of the industrial design house, IDEO, call the “Design Thinker” … which is the crossroads between the analytical MBA and the intuitive designer. The intuitive designer searches for new ideas and answers to difficult problems knowing the answers could be found in many places … using intuition as one of the main tools. The analytical MBA forces the discipline to shape the result and improve success from buy-in through implementation.

    I Highly recommend a book I just finished called The Design of Business by Roger Martin.

    I am so proud to have you as our dean.

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