Remembering James MacGregor Burns and his leadership wisdom


Historian James MacGregor Burns poses at his home in Williamstown, Mass. in 2007. (AP Photo/Nathaniel Brooks)

The leadership world lost a giant this week when James MacGregor Burns died at his home in Williamstown, Mass. on Tuesday. Burns, who was 95, was a political scientist and historian who wrote biographies of presidents and notable books about the American political system.

But the subject he was most known for--and which will be his greatest legacy--is his study of leadership. His name graces an endowed position in the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. A public policy program at the University of Maryland has been named after him. And his 1978 book "Leadership" remains the seminal work in the field of leadership studies.

It is from that classic book that the phrase "transformational leadership" originates. CEOs and business gurus use it to describe everything from being a change agent to managing corporate turnarounds.

But Burns had a specific meaning for it. He made a distinction between "transactional" leaders--those who take a more short-term approach to achieving goals through negotiations and compromise--and "transforming" ones, who seek to create change by helping followers become better versions of themselves. “Truly great and creative leaders do something more," he is quoted as saying. "They arouse peoples’ hopes and aspirations and expectations, convert social needs into political demands, and rise to higher levels of leadership as they respond to those demands.”

At a time when the word "leadership" is thrown about by politicians and corporate managers with little regard for what they actually mean by the term, it's worth remembering Burns' inspiring definition. "The function of leadership is to engage followers, not merely to activate them, to commingle needs and aspirations and goals in a common enterprise, and in the process to make better citizens of both leaders and followers."

Leadership is not just a title or a way to describe someone in charge. It is far more than the work of achieving political goals or managing an organization. "Divorced from ethics," Burns wrote, "leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique."

And it is much more than just power. “Leadership, in short, is power governed by principle, directed toward raising people to their highest levels of personal motive and social morality,” he wrote. “Power is different. Power manipulates people as they are; leadership as they could be. Power manages; leadership mobilizes. Power impacts; leadership engages. Power tends to corrupt, leadership to create.”

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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