What a Leader Needs; Effecting Change across the Ages

Article excerpt


"Transforming Leadership" never quite gets to where it's going. But no matter. It's a wonderful walkabout - a stroll with a brilliant, humane, and beloved old professor whose courses you took long ago. He influenced you greatly, once. And if at times you can't remember exactly how, and if some of his ideas now seem a bit dated and others a bit fuzzy, no matter. You listen for the pleasure, and for the pleasure of realizing afterward that, yes, he taught you something once again.

James MacGregor Burns, professor emeritus at Williams College and now with the University of Richmond, is one of the master historians and political scientists of a generation that produced many. His 15 previous volumes include a still worth reading study of John Kennedy; his work on Franklin Roosevelt won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Twenty-five years ago, he came out with "Leadership," one of the earliest and most influential books in the on-again/off-again field of "leadership studies." In "Transforming Leadership," he goes beyond what is and what works, to what ought to be.

Leadership as moral imperative, in a world desperately in need of transformation.

The book is methodical, logically arranged, and easy to follow, but not always cohesive. The author offers dozens of historical mini-case studies and vignettes, from Cleopatra to Mikhail Gorbachev. Some work better than others; some seem to evanesce without clear conclusions. (If this were an exam, the grader would be scrawling all over the pages, "Explain," "Develop," and the like.) The overall impression is that of an author including his favorite material, whether it fits or not. But again, no matter. The major themes are clear.

Mr. Burns starts with the obvious. Leadership entails more than domination and command. There are necessary interactions far more complex than, "I lead/you follow." Beyond mere rulership, Mr. Burns distinguishes two types of leadership. The "transactional" involves mostly brokerage between competing interests, keeping lids on and (often enough) making sure that nothing ever happens for the first time.

"Transforming leadership," on the other hand, is far from routine. But how does it happen? What causes truly great leaders to come forth, and how and why do they both bring out the best in their followers and change the real world for the better?

For Mr. Burns, transforming leadership is rooted in human wants and needs. The leader understands and empathizes with other human beings. He or she takes their wants, validates them as legitimate needs, and creatively finds ways to empower them. But the process also works in reverse. The transforming leader is creatively empowered - a situation that comes about when and as the leader follows. It's that old bumper sticker - "If The People Lead, the Leaders Will Follow" - arrayed as political theory and historical anecdote.

But what wants? Which needs? And what kinds of politics are conducive to the emergence of such leaders? Here Mr. Burns offers a nostalgic brew of history, political theory, and psychology - a mash that was popular in the '70s and '80s, then faded, mostly because "interdisciplinary" proved more a label than a fact.

Obviously, the most fundamental needs are physical: food, shelter, and at least a minimal degree of security. Beyond these lie the expansion of basic human wants into more complex needs, sometimes material acquisitiveness, sometimes the desire for greater non-material freedoms. Finally, there's the realm of all the things that make life worth living to the individual. Forty years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote of a "hierarchy of needs," beginning with the bare physical necessities, ending in what he called "self-actualization." Mr. Burns holds that, whatever the subsequent questioning of Maslow's methods and constructs, the idea remains valid. …