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 4: Transforming motives and mentors: the heroic leadership of James MacGregor Burns

George R. Goethals and Scott T. Allison

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


We are fortunate that James MacGregor Burns had become interested in psychology when he was developing his groundbreaking 1978 book called, simply, Leadership. During his first year as a member of the Psychology Department at Williams College in 1970–71, George Goethals, one of the authors of this chapter, introduced himself to Burns and asked him to speak to a psychology class that Goethals was teaching which considered US presidents. Burns introduced Goethals to the work of two psychologically minded political scientists studying presidential leadership, James David Barber and Fred Greenstein. Both were interested, in one way or another, in the successful management of emotions as a key “presidential difference,” to borrow Greenstein’s term. One afternoon not long after, Burns showed up at Goethals’s office and asked if they could talk about psychology, particularly human motivation. Burns mentions this conversation in his 2003 book Transforming Leadership, and so it was a memorable discussion to both of them. At that point Burns was not familiar with the name Abraham Maslow or his work on a hierarchy of needs. Subsequently, Maslow’s work figured prominently in Burns’s approach to understanding leadership. More particularly, it was central to the concept of “transforming leadership.” Maslow argued that once lower level motives such as hunger were satisfied, higher motives would be engaged, all the way up to the highest motive in the hierarchy, self-actualization.

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