James MacGregor Burns – Leadership

The Washington Post blog carried a post worth reading (here) on Thursday, about the death of James MacGregor Burns.  Burns published his most notable work, Leadership, in 1978, and won a Pultizer Prize for non-fiction.

I read the book the year it was published and it shaped my thinking about leadership thereafter.  For me, there were three memorable take-aways.

James MacGregor Burns Leadership
1.  It is a serious mistake to value and study ‘leadership’ without at the same time valuing and studying followership.  Burns argued, in fact, that ‘leadership’ is not a label for the characteristics of a man or woman:  it is a label for what is happening in the relationship between the man or woman who is ‘leader’ and all the followers.  (“…leadership… [is] a structure of action that engages persons, to varying degrees, throughout the levels and among the injustices of society.”)

2.  Identifying three types of leadership — transmissional, transactional, and transformational — Burns argued that leadership is an evolving concept and practice, and that the highest form is transformational leadership.  (“…the transforming leader looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower.  The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.)  In this regard, Burns anticipated the wisdom of crowds, here comes everybody, and a team of leaders.

3.  The issue of greatest concern for Burns, as it should be for all citizens, was the issue of moral leadership — “Moral leadership emerges from, and always returns to, the fundamental wants and needs, aspirations, and values of the followers… the kind of leadership that can produce social change that will satisfy followers’ authentic needs.”

For Albertans, Burns death should jog the mind to consider how his views on leadership might influence reflections about the current leadership campaign as the P.C. party searches for the next Premier of Alberta.

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