That Rare Bird – A Leader Truly Transformational

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, all my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I’ve gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It is titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

In 1978, seminal leadership scholar, James MacGregor Burns, came out with his magnum opus on leadership, titled, simply, Leadership. Though it is read now less frequently than it was, it nevertheless endures as one of the few utterly serious efforts by an utterly serious leadership scholar to develop leadership theory grounded in history.

Perhaps Burns’ most significant contribution – it was, in any case, the one to which more scholars and students resonated than any other – was the distinction he made between transactional leadership and transforming leadership. Transactional leadership occurs,” he wrote, “when one person takes the initiative in making contact with others for the purpose of an exchange of valued things.” Transforming leadership, in contrast, “occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and follower raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.” Their purposes become fused.  

What comes through is the premium Burns placed on transforming leadership. Unlike transactional leadership, which was pedestrian, commonplace, transforming leadership was, by definition, exceptional, uncommon. Even considering this criterion, I like to think he would have concurred – that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is such a leader. That she is that rare bird, a leader who well and truly has transformed.

I have written about Merkel before, including in this space. So, I will not now touch on her past. Instead I will say only that in her case, the present confirms the past. It confirms that history will judge the Chancellor a transformational leader – even by the exceedingly high bar set by Professor Burns.  

Even before this year she might reasonably have been considered transformational – if only on the grounds of her refugee policy . But 2020 further confirms her greatness.  First, no country in the world is better positioned than is Germany to emerge from the pandemic. Along with a handful of others such as Taiwan and New Zealand, it is managing the plague better than any other place on the planet.

Second, contrary to all expectations, Merkel made a U-turn on the European Union. After years of opposing giving Europe’s poorer countries what she perceived as handouts from Europe’s richest, she agreed to provide an enormous economic post Covid-19 rescue package to, effectively, prevent the European Union from going under. It is not too much to say that if the European Union survives, not to speak of thrives, it will be Merkel who, along with her sometime partner, French president Emmanuel Macron, gets most of the credit. I am a staunch Europeanist. So, to my way of thinking this alone merits Merkel’s place in the pantheon of great leaders. Or, as Burns would have it, of leaders who have been transforming.

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