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“Leadership” – by James MacGregor Burns

Posted by on Jul 20, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

The above-named book by the above-named man is often described as the wellspring of the study of leadership. But leadership has, of course, been at the center of our attention for hundreds, even thousands of years – think Confucius, Plato, and Machiavelli. Nevertheless it is also true that during the last forty years leadership – both as a subject of study and as a skill that is taught – has exploded. It’s taken off. It’s the rage. It’s in fashion. Leadership has, in short, become an industry – I call it the “leadership industry” – a transformation for which Burns generally gets a good deal of credit.

No doubt Leadership is a seminal book. Even today, decades after its original publication in 1978, it is unrivaled as a contribution to the field. It’s that dense, that learned, that wise. It’s that inclusive, not only of leaders, but of followers, and of the context within which they are situated.

But Leadership is by no means perfect. I, for one, never did agree with Burns’s claim that men such as Hitler and Stalin were somehow a different species. They were “power holders” or “power wielders” he insisted – not leaders. Nor for that matter did I ever grasp why the idea of “transforming leadership” got such a strong hold on so many. After all, transforming leadership – which “occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality” – is more of an ideal to be imagined than a goal frequently achieved.

Still, Leadership was not only in its own right a significant achievement, a contemporary classic. It was also the right book at the right time. Its impact cannot, in other words, be divorced from the context within which it first appeared. Leadership was published when America was entering what Burns himself later came to call a leadership “crisis,” when the American people began for the first time in years to question their capacity to be led wisely and well.

During the Second World War and the two decades immediately succeeding, America was on a roll.  We had triumphed in war, and we, the white majority anyway, were prospering in peace. No wonder we believed that our leaders knew best. But this sense of serenity was shattered in the 1960s, first by the assassinations in relatively quick succession of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy; next by the Vietnam War and various rights revolutions that were, in effect, simultaneous; and finally by the succession of failed or partially failed presidencies, particularly Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s, but extending also to Gerald Ford’s and Jimmy Carter’s, neither of whom was able in his own right to earn another term.

Nor was the private sector immune from what was happening in the public one. In 1970, for example, Robert Townsend, a highly successful businessman with impeccable credentials, wrote a book that broke the mold. Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits turned the gray flannel suit inside out. The book was short and punchy, cynical and castigating, witty and irreverent, pedantic and pointed. Above all it was anti-authority, arguing well before it became fashionable to do so that the traditional organizational hierarchy was dated; that most organizations were cumbersome and inefficient; and that most CEOs were stuck, clinging to their old managerial ways even though they no longer worked as well as they did before Japan had turned formidable global competitor.

Burns would, I’m convinced, be the first to agree that however important was his own contribution, had Leadership been published even a decade earlier it would never have had the traction that it did. Leadership appeared at a time that, in retrospect, could be seen as the beginning of the American decline. Whatever our subsequent successes, the so-called leader of the free world, the U.S.A., has never been able to recapture the glow that it had before globalization changed the ways of production and distribution, and before murder, skepticism, and scandal changed the way we view Washington.

James MacGregor Burns

Posted by on Jul 18, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments


He died this week, at age 95. Nearly fabled, certainly venerated among political scientists, historians, journalists and politicians for his contributions to our collective life, he was, it happened, singular.

But he was singular not so much for what he did, however splendid, as for what he was.

My own small story:

I was a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Yale University in the early 1970s. I stood alone for two reasons. First, to my knowledge then and now, I was the first woman in the department with children, living off campus, who had the temerity to pursue a Ph.D. (One professor was so outrageous as to ask why I was even at Yale, why I was not home taking care of my children.)  Second, I became interested in leadership, but discovered to my astonishment that political science had no literature on political leadership and, more remarkably, no apparent involvement in it either. The closest the discipline came at the time was the study of “elites” – but elites and leaders are hardly one and the same.

Of course I had no idea how to proceed – or even if it was possible. I had no idea, that is, until I came upon a prize-winning biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt titled, The Lion and the Fox. The book was published in 1956, it had been penned by James MacGregor Burns. It was of course superb. However what struck me most was not actually the biography – but an appendage thereto. It was called “A Note on the Study of Political Leadership.”

I had found my holy grail! It was this extraordinary “Note” that, of itself, foreshadowed the contemporaneous consideration of leadership. It was this extraordinary “Note” that, of itself,  constituted proof positive that leadership was a serious subject fit for serious study by a serious person. For someone of low rank (me) to discover that someone of high rank (Burns) had determined that leadership per se was worthy of close consideration was all the affirmation I needed to decide that it, leadership, would be central to my professional life.

Let me be clear. This was not merely an abstraction, a matter of the printed page. After I read Burns’s “Note on the Study of Political Leadership” I wrote to him, at Williams College, and in time I came to meet him. At first he was my mentor, and I his mentee. But, as the years passed, I, like a number of others, transitioned from being Burns’s mentees to being Burns’s friends, his equals, or so he let us imagine ourselves. Even when, as inevitably it happened, we took issue with him, he was never critical. Disputatious yes, critical no. Argumentative yes, judgmental no.

Jim was one of America’s great 20th century intellectuals. He was also fully, deeply engaged in public affairs. And he was founder and champion of what I believe he would be the first to admit is the still fledgling field of Leadership Studies. Above all though he was a great man. His first class character and, yes, his first class temperament will be forever remembered by those whose paths he came to cross.


Note: I am the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.



Poor Putin

Posted by on Jul 18, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

He’s been victimized – victimized by the law of unanticipated consequences. Thinking himself in total control – as opposed to only partial control – Putin recently ramped up Russia’s investment in destabilizing Ukraine. He increased the number of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border to rather a massive 13,000, and he put new, more formidable military hardware into the hands of Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists. The idea of course was to manage the situation from Moscow, while unsettling the government in Kiev.

But in the second decade of the 21st century best laid plans get upended – even plans made by people in positions of power. Within Russia Putin has got his way. Through a wily combination of oppression and suppression, his political opposition has been more or less stifled.  Moreover without Russia he has also been riding high. Ever since Obama made Putin his partner in striking that Syrian chemical weapons deal, Putin has strode the world like a bit of a colossus, throwing his weight around so successfully that he calculated he could seize Crimea without firing a shot. And so he did.

What he has not always been able to accomplish, however, is to control the forces that he himself has unleashed. And so it is in Eastern Ukraine, where he has not been able always to contain pro-Russian separatists – even though it is he, of course, who since the beginning has been their enabler. Even this particular leader is not, in other words, in complete command of his followers. Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists owe their existence to Putin, but not necessarily their allegiance.

It is impossible to know at this moment who exactly is to blame for the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines flight number 17.  What we do know is that it was shot out of the sky by a Russian made surface-to-air missile. What we do know is that some 298 people are dead as a result. And what we do know is that while Vladimir Putin might not be directly responsible, he is without doubt indirectly responsible.

Putin should have known that he cannot always count on controlling even his own people. But he did not – and so he has painted himself into a corner. He has at this moment only two choices. Either he endures an embarrassment and takes a step back. Or he ratchets up his risk by destabilizing Europe still further.




Posted by on Jul 16, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments


Whoopi was the name of my dog.

We had her since she was a pup – yesterday she died at the age of almost 17.

When I knew for sure that she would be gone in several hours, I lay down beside her on the floor and felt her fur.

That’s pretty much all I did until she passed.


Mein Kampf

Posted by on Jul 9, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

After officially banning Hitler’s autobiographical screed Mein Kampf since the end of World II, Germany will finally, formally permit its publication in 2015. As reported in a piece by Peter Ross Range in yesterday’s New York Times, the book’s copyright expires next year, which means that from then on anyone in Germany can publish the book, whether quality publisher or a group of neo-Nazis.

Of course while for historical reasons Germany has banned the book, it has been freely available elsewhere. In fact I have assigned it, or parts of it, in one of my classes, specifically in a course I developed at the Harvard Kennedy School titled, “Leadership Literacy.”

The point of “Leadership Literacy” is to familiarize students with the great leadership literature – I mean the really great leadership literature. Literature that has stood the test of time and has come to be considered classic. Some of this literature is about leadership – for example, works by Confucius, Machiavelli, Shakespeare and, yes, Freud. Some of this literature is, itself, an act of leadership – for example, Paine’s Common Sense, Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, and Carson’s Silent Spring. Finally is the third major category, words penned by leaders, or spoken by leaders, that are so powerful, so memorable, that they will linger forever. Of course Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” is in this group, and so is Churchill’s “Adamant for Drift,” and so is King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Which returns us to Mein Kampf. For me there was never any question that Hitler’s infamous book, which ranks among the most persuasive pieces of propaganda of all time, belonged in the course. Is Mein Kampf great? The answer depends of course on how you define great.  What we can say in any case is this: in its own time, from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s, the book was a powerhouse. Even in our time the book remains fully alive, an object of continuing fascination.

Mein Kampf is best known for its virulent anti-Semitism. But if it were no more than that, no more than an anti-Semitic rant, I doubt it would it would have had the same original impact. And I similarly doubt it would be of any significant interest today. But it is more than a rant: Mein Kampf is of inherent interest for several reasons, among them Hitler’s discussion of the purposes of propaganda, and his exegesis on how to organize a political movement. I would argue in fact that anyone who wants to understand the man and his moment must take into account his manifesto.

Given my conviction that the great leadership literature should underpin all leadership learning, I edited a collection based on the canon, Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence.  When I submitted my manuscript for publication I was told it was fine, excellent in fact – with one exception. The exception was the excerpt from Mein Kampf. The publisher did not want me to include it – and I reluctantly agreed to omit it. My mistake. Mein Kampf is widely available anyway, which is just as well. It’s the ultimate cautionary document – conclusive proof that words matter.