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Leadership, James MacGregor Burns, 1978

Leadership, James MacGregor Burns, 1978

Published on: September 2015​
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Genre: Academic Programs​ Category: Book Review​
Leadership, James MacGregor Burns, 1978

Students of leadership will sooner or later arrive at Leadership by James MacGregor Burns. Published originally in 1978, it is a tour de force, which won the Pulitzer prize and has since been credited for inspiring the contemporary resurgence in leadership studies. How? Burns took a step away from studying leaders, and turned his head to the nature of leadership.
 
Leadership as a shift of focus
 
Political science, at its heart, is about the pursuit, uses, abuses, the institutions and the consequences of power. As an eminent political scientist when he came to write Leadership, Burns’ displacement of power as the focal point of analysis was radical. Instead, he suggests:
 
“Our main hope for disenthralling ourselves from our overemphasis on power lies more in a theoretical, or at least conceptual, effort, than in an empirical one… We must analyze power in a context of human motives and physical constraints… to comprehend the true nature of leadership” (p.11). 
 
Leadership as a relationship
 
Burns suggests that power is not a characteristic of an individual, nor the preserve of elites, but a relationship between two or more people that taps into the motives and resources of all involved. Leaders become more than instrumental power-wielders when they “arouse, engage, and satisfy the motives of followers” (p.18). In Burns’ view, FD Roosevelt and Chairman Mao were leaders, but Hitler merely a power-wielder. 
 
Leadership is, for Burns, firstly a moral endeavour. In its early stages it can be characterized by personal values such as honesty and courage. The end-goal of leadership is the self-actualisation of a people – around issues such as security and order, liberty, equality, freedom and justice. He holds out hope that early research suggesting similarities of such end-values across countries might one day prove the possibility of a transcendent set of global political leadership principles. 
 
Second, leadership should be causal: “political leadership is broadly intended ‘real change’. It is collectively purposeful causation” (p.434). Leadership does not exist if it does not make a difference. Burns’ heroes are often leaders who take personal risks for a greater good – Mohandas K Ghandi being a perfect case study.
 
Transformational and transactional leadership
 
Burns is the originator of the notions of transformational and transactional leadership. His interest was foremost in the uniting nature of transformational leadership in bringing people together to work towards a moral goal; he contrasted this with transactional leadership which he argues is characterized by a conscious bargain between the parties that simply satisfies individual interests. (He later criticized President Bill Clinton in this vein).  Transformational and transactional leadership were later operationalized at a micro level by Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio - and a generation of leadership researchers has since produced volumes of supporting evidence.  
 
A general theory of leadership?
 
Burns suggests that a general theory of leadership can be developed across cultures and time by drawing on the universally-established human hierarchy of needs, structure of values and stages of moral development (p.428). In simple terms, he draws our attention to moral purpose and impact as the characteristics of great leadership. Burns inspired many to study leadership, but rather than simply test and advance his theory, a field of leadership studies flourished but also atomized - to the point where today many are seeking to build integrative models, drawing back together ideas and evidence on leadership into more practically useful bundles of knowledge. The quest for a general theory of leadership that inspired Burns continues. 
 
Reflections
 
Burns’ contribution, in pioneering a relational turn in the study of political leaders, is considerable. His ideas of transformational and transactional leadership have featured in the study of leadership for over 30 years. Public administration researchers and practitioners might pause and reflect at this point: Burns’ evidence is entirely and deliberately from the political world, and yet it was adopted directly into the commercial world with little consideration of the change of context. 
 
Further, the spin off industry around the measurement of transactional and transformational leadership has at times missed the point, reducing Burns’ rich insights into the dynamics of leadership and power to quantifiable scales. Those interested in transformational leadership would do well to invest in a deep reading of the original text to appreciate both the cases offered and Burns’ original analysis. 
 
It can be argued that Leadership proposes too great a feat of generalisation. Burns’ argument for leadership based on universal human values is powerful but undeniably normative, and the evidence is touted but not presented. This criticism does not diminish Burns’ immense contribution, but I would tend to agree with Kellerman: “to my mind, the whole of Leadership matters more than its parts” (Kellerman, 2007, p.9). Foremost, Burns’ Leadership affords great insight into the practices of political leadership, the leadership of peoples and nations, from an American perspective. It should be read in that light.
 

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