“Leadership” – by James MacGregor Burns

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 scrutiny, skepticism, and scandal changed the way we view Washington.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *