Reluctant leaders: Rosa Parks

In the third of this series on reluctant leaders, Paul Russell looks at the work of civil rights hero Rosa Parks.

Rosa Parks was one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century, the recipient of the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal in the company of George Washington, Mother Teresa, Thomas Edison and Betty Ford, received more than forty-three honorary doctorate degrees and is known as the first lady of the civil rights movement. 

Born Rosa Louise McCauley on 4 February 1913, Parks was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama and a member of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, like her husband Raymond. Parks was also employed as its secretary, and had dreams to end racial segregation.

In fact, 1 December 1955 wasn’t the first time that Parks has refused to bow to pressure to give up her seat for a white person.

But it was the first time she had been arrested for it. Yet Parks didn’t plan her actions that day, saying: “I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time…there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested.”

On occasion, reluctant leaders emerge because they feel that they have been left no option. You don’t have to hold a leadership role or a position of power to lead.

For Parks, the situation had become untenable, as Martin Luther King said: “Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realises that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer’.”

This speaks of a person that has witnessed inequality many times, who has experienced misguided leadership that does not consider the needs of all, and had decided that they must make a stand. Parks said: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

On occasion, reluctant leaders emerge because they feel that they have been left no option. You don’t have to hold a leadership role or a position of power to lead. In times of turbulence or crisis, it is not always the established leaders that will provide the solution that a company needs but those that are willing to provide direction, be brave, and chart a different course as Parks did.

But, even with Parks’ willingness to take a stand it is unlikely that she had determined to become a leader and even realised what this solitary act could mean for the future of the civil rights movements. During her time at the NAACP, Parks met Edgar Nixon, the man who would seize upon the opportunity that Parks’ actions presented, saying: “My God, look what segregation has put in my hands!”

As a respectable member of the community by societal standards of the time, married, employed and with an acute understanding of the work of the NAACP, Parks was deemed to be the ideal beacon for the civil rights movement.

This is of course, often the way for reluctant leaders. Like George Washington, a military leader who was prevailed upon to become the first PM, Parks’ actions were what singled her out to be thrust into this leadership role when the time came.

Without Nixon’s identification of Parks as a suitable leader for the cause, and his persuasion for Parks to take part in the lawsuit against bus segregation, the landmark 20 December 1956 ruling would unlikely have happened.

Like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King was reluctant to become embroiled in the bus boycott organised by Nixon. But as with Parks, Nixon had identified a person with the skills needed to be an extremely influential leader, and offered support and encouragement to place Luther King in the newly created role of leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

Reluctant leaders are often, like Parks and Luther King, reluctant to lead for extremely valid reasons with both becoming targets as a result of their high profile leadership in the roles. So as well as identification of potential leaders who are not putting themselves forward, we have to consider the barriers.

When a person emerges as a potential leader in a time of crisis because they feel they have no alternative, the barriers and therefore the reluctance to lead will also be at its highest. We have to do what we can to remove these barriers, and as Nixon did, elevate these reluctant leaders to positions where they can influence change.


About the author

Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London, a multi-national private training company with offices in London, Delhi, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors.

Read part two of our ‘reluctant leaders’ series here



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