- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

“Transforming Leadership” never quite gets to where it’s going. But no matter. It’s a wonderful walkabout a stroll with a brilliant, humane, and beloved old professor whose courses you took long ago. He influenced you greatly, once. And if at times you can’t remember exactly how, and if some of his ideas now seem a bit dated and others a bit fuzzy, no matter. You listen for the pleasure, and for the pleasure of realizing afterward that, yes, he taught you something once again.

James MacGregor Burns, professor emeritus at Williams College and now with the University of Richmond, is one of the master historians and political scientists of a generation that produced many. His 15 previous volumes include a still worth reading study of John Kennedy; his work on Franklin Roosevelt won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Twenty-five years ago, he came out with “Leadership,” one of the earliest and most influential books in the on-again/off-again field of “leadership studies.” In “Transforming Leadership,” he goes beyond what is and what works, to what ought to be.

Leadership as moral imperative, in a world desperately in need of transformation.

The book is methodical, logically arranged, and easy to follow, but not always cohesive. The author offers dozens of historical mini-case studies and vignettes, from Cleopatra to Mikhail Gorbachev. Some work better than others; some seem to evanesce without clear conclusions. (If this were an exam, the grader would be scrawling all over the pages, “Explain,” “Develop,” and the like.) The overall impression is that of an author including his favorite material, whether it fits or not. But again, no matter. The major themes are clear.

Mr. Burns starts with the obvious. Leadership entails more than domination and command. There are necessary interactions far more complex than, “I lead/you follow.” Beyond mere rulership, Mr. Burns distinguishes two types of leadership. The “transactional” involves mostly brokerage between competing interests, keeping lids on and (often enough) making sure that nothing ever happens for the first time.

“Transforming leadership,” on the other hand, is far from routine. But how does it happen? What causes truly great leaders to come forth, and how and why do they both bring out the best in their followers and change the real world for the better?

For Mr. Burns, transforming leadership is rooted in human wants and needs. The leader understands and empathizes with other human beings. He or she takes their wants, validates them as legitimate needs, and creatively finds ways to empower them. But the process also works in reverse. The transforming leader is creatively empowered a situation that comes about when and as the leader follows. It’s that old bumper sticker “If The People Lead, the Leaders Will Follow” arrayed as political theory and historical anecdote.

But what wants? Which needs? And what kinds of politics are conducive to the emergence of such leaders? Here Mr. Burns offers a nostalgic brew of history, political theory, and psychology a mash that was popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then faded, mostly because “interdisciplinary” proved more a label than a fact.

Obviously, the most fundamental needs are physical: food, shelter, and at least a minimal degree of security. Beyond these lie the expansion of basic human wants into more complex needs, sometimes material acquisitiveness, sometimes the desire for greater non-material freedoms. Finally, there’s the realm of all the things that make life worth living to the individual. Forty years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote of a “hierarchy of needs,” beginning with the bare physical necessities, ending in what he called “self-actualization.” Mr. Burns holds that, whatever the subsequent questioning of Maslow’s methods and constructs, the idea remains valid.

And if you don’t care for psychobabble, you can always adopt an alternative phrasing. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. This Mr. Burns holds to be a statement of universal validity, and the proper goal of any transforming leader: to assure the physical minimum (when necessary), to expand the realm of empowering liberty, and to bring about the happiness of individual and collective self-actualization. Of all forms of government to date, democracies do this best, mostly because they agree on minimal constitutional norms, accept the concept of a loyal opposition, and hold to a more or less inviolable realm of individual privacy and rights.

So what do we have, so far? Leadership, to be moral, must be transformational, leading to greater life, liberty, and happiness. The transforming leader must follow as much as lead. And while oppression often brings forth great liberators, democracy provides the best venue for the sustained pursuit of happiness.

Hard to dispute. Nor would it be easy to dispute Mr. Burns’ notion that the great leadership challenge of the 21st century will be to rescue the three billion or so human beings who still live in dire poverty and physical peril. His solution: a multi-national corps of volunteer “freedom leaders” who, empowered by mighty infusions of cash, will go among the world’s poor, learn from them, create a new generation of local leaders, then leave. Rather a planetary version of JFK’s hope for the Peace Corps.

And it would be easy to smile the concept away as nostalgia, liberal do-goodism, or naivete, were it not also the earnest suggestion of a wise man concerned for a world he’ll never see.

But perhaps the true value of this book lies neither in its historicity nor its charmingly 18th-century “modest proposal for the perfection of humanity.” Throughout the book, Mr. Burns ponders the nature of human creativity, and the fact that, in any field, great leaders must be more than thugs, manipulators, and visionaries. They must also be more than geniuses. He never quite captures the essence of creative genius no one ever has but he establishes one of its preconditions, if the individual genius is to be anything more than a frustrated freak.

He or she needs company.

Golden Ages, whether political or cultural (and sometimes both together) come about when a “critical mass” of creativity comes together, when conflict becomes more creative than destructive, and when leaders and led and artists and audiences develop mutual regard. Periclean Athens, Elizabethan England, the American Founders, even pre-World War I Russia and Weimar Germany, worked their respective miracles because they had enough people whose brilliance could refract off and intensify each others’. Mr. Burns sees no reason why it can’t happen again.

But could it? It’s easy to wonder how long William Shakespeare (himself no slouch as a businessman) would have lasted in present-day Hollywood, or Washington (no paragon of sexual virtue) in a Clinton administration, or how Abraham Lincoln might have fared on CNN, let alone the “Jerry Springer Show.” Nearly all the political and cultural Golden Ages of the past happened in relatively small societies. Can a genuine burst of political and cultural creativity happen in a nation of three hundred million, daily crushed beneath the corruption, banality, glitz, and trash of our political and cultural machinery?

Can America ever again achieve the kind of critical mass of genius that might redeem, or at least once again nurture and sustain us? Or does the sheer weight of the garbage now preclude it?

Should Mr. Burns have yet another book in him, on this subject, it would be a pleasure and, as always, an education to read it.

Philip Gold is president of Aretea, a Seattle-based political and cultural affairs center.

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