Beyond Transactional

Book cover
Transforming Leadershipby By James MacGregor BurnsAtlantic Monthly Press. 319p $25

James MacGregor Burns’s new book, Transforming Leadership, is a reformulation and update of his 1978 book Leadership, which was the seminal text for the burgeoning new field of “leadership studies.” There is a James MacGregor Burns Institute of Leadership at the University of Maryland, where Burns used to teach, with clones at a number of other universities. By one recent count, the past couple of decades have seen almost 600 doctoral dissertations in leadership studies.

Burns is a historian and Franklin Roosevelt scholar, whose interest in leadership was first prompted by his studies of Roosevelt. As the title of the first volume of his Pulitzer prize-winning biography, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, suggests, Roosevelt, as few others, could slide easily between “transactional” and “transformative” leadership styles, to use Burns’s own jargon.


A “transactional” leader is merely a broker, a “fox,” making the artful tradeoffs between competing interests that keep an enterprise or a ship of state on an even keel. Roosevelt was a past master at the fox role, dancing between the raindrops, keeping everyone slightly off balance as he gathered the reins of power in his own hands.

But true leadership, according to Burns, is “transformative,” effecting “alterations so comprehensive and pervasive...that new cultures and value systems take the place of the old.” Burns awards Roosevelt transformative laurels—or lionhood—for his performance during the First Hundred Days of the New Deal, and again as he maneuvered the country into war, and then emerged as the war’s leading figure.

Burns stipulates that transformative leadership cannot be evaluated merely by the scale of its effects. It must also embody the aspirations of a people, at least so long as they comport with the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness. It is a fortunate qualification, for otherwise Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan and a whole string of other dreadful people would rate high on the transformative scale. One wonders, in fact, whether the “enlightenment” requirement is really a bit of intellectual weaseling to maintain the comfort levels of academic deans and foundation officials. Are we really so sure that various ayatollahs don’t understand the aspirations of their people better than Western pundits?

The bulk of the book is a grab bag of leadership sketches, from Cleopatra to Mao, accompanied by instant ratings on the transactional/transformative scale. Churchill makes the transformative ranks, as does Charles William Eliot, a president of Harvard University during the 19th century. Ferdinand De Lesseps is transformative for his work on the Suez Canal, but falls from the pantheon for making a mess of the attempt on the Isthmus of Panama. Elizabeth I, surprisingly, gets only a transactional ranking, while Mao was transformative, although Burns acknowledges that his transactional skills were weak.

Other notables who qualify as transformative are the 18th-century British parliamentarians Henry St. John (Lord) Bolingbroke and Edmund Burke, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel and apparently Lech Walesa. Burns seems uncertain about Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and takes a jaundiced view of Charles de Gaulle. Neither Napoleon nor Bill Clinton make the cut, but Burns suggests that if Clinton had had a better understanding of transformative leadership, he might have sold his health care plan.

Along the way, Burns dots the book with maxims for aspiring leaders. Leaders have to listen to their followers, for they “also have the potential for making significant contributions.” “Activists gain leadership positions by responding to followers’ needs and wants adequately.” “[T]he ultimate test of creative leadership lies not only in having a new idea but in bringing it to life.” And much more in this vein.

The book ends with a program for ending global poverty. In the 1970’s, two Indian doctors, husband and wife, returned to India from their studies in the West and mobilized the women of an impoverished village first to encourage the practice of hygiene and immunization, and then to start small businesses, demonstrating “how gifted leaders at the grass roots can empower people by mobilizing local leaders.” What is required, then, is to “recruit...thousands of activists willing to travel and work in remote places...freedom leaders—who would live close to the poor, hear and understand their wants and needs, and mobilize local leadership.” Burns expressly cites the Peace Corps as a model.

Transforming Leadership has the same formulaic, meretricious feel as the management best sellers that crowd the business book shelves. Come to think of it, Transforming Leadership probably will be a management best seller. The method of proceeding in both kinds of books is the same: state a few guiding principles; make them short and punchy—the more platitudinous the better. String together a bunch of anecdotes that, amazingly, demonstrate the profound truth of the slogans. The outcome is not evil, or even obviously wrong, just vacuous. Foundations and businesses like the slogans, and soon the landscape is dotted with training institutes, with “leadership” experts and consultants busily plying their trade.

Burns has had an honorable career, and no one will begrudge him his best seller, but the thought of those 600 doctoral dissertations is truly depressing.

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