Politics, Ethics and Change

Politics, Ethics and Change

The Legacy of James MacGregor Burns

New Horizons in Leadership Studies series

Edited by George R. Goethals and Douglas Bradburn

The impact of James MacGregor Burns’ writings on our understanding of moral and lasting change is explored through essays focussing on transforming leadership in contexts such as the founding of the American nation and presidential leadership throughout US history. Burns’s most influential concepts are explained, critiqued and expanded and then applied in political, business and institutional domains. The volume demonstrates how Burns’s analyses illuminate the nature of social change and transformation, the subtleties of the relationship between leaders and followers, and how together both can realize enduring human values using power resources that arouse and satisfy deep human motives.

Chapter 3: Real, intended change: business movements?

Gill Robinson Hickman

Subjects: business and management, business ethics and trust, business leadership, politics and public policy, leadership


We are well aware that the economy, environment and organizations in today’s global context are highly interdependent and interconnected. This interdependence contributes to the blurring of lines among business, nonprofit and government entities to the extent that new forms of organization are emerging to tackle socioeconomic and sociopolitical issues that only the political system and social movements confronted in the past. James MacGregor Burns proclaimed in his groundbreaking book, Leadership, that the effectiveness of leaders “will be tested by the achievement of purpose in the form of real and intended [emphasis added] social change.” Burns explained that social change means real change that brings about a substantial transformation in the institutions, behaviors, attitudes and norms of our daily lives. His theory of transforming leadership included an imperative to link leadership with “collective purpose and social change.” He envisioned this leadership coming from the political and social sector, but definitely not from business leadership. Can we actually bring about the societal transformations that Burns called for in an interdependent global society without private sector participation? There is an emergent group of leaders from private sector organizations who may be challenging Burns’s notion of which leaders and sector can bring about real intended change. Private sector leaders intend to generate business and social change through entities and movements such as benefit corporations, B corporations, the Conscious Capitalism movement, collaborative communities and sustainable leadership, among others.

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