James MacGregor Burns


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.



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