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 8: Transactional leadership in a transformative election: an essay in honor of James MacGregor Burns

Edward J. Larson

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


In his seminal book, Leadership, James MacGregor Burns identifies two types of leadership, the transactional and the transforming. Transactional leaders, he says, “approach followers with an eye to exchanging one thing for another: jobs for votes, or subsidies for campaign contributions.” A transforming leader, in contrast, “looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower.” In doing so both leader and follower are transformed. Burns cites Thomas Jefferson as a transforming leader and his election as president in 1800 as a transformational event in American politics. Jefferson’s running mate in that election, Aaron Burr, however, stands as the personification of transactional leadership. As Burns suggests in his depiction of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the lion and the fox, the two types of leadership often intertwine. Never was that more true than in the New York phase of the great election of 1800, which is the subject of this chapter. Over the 1790s, American politics had coalesced around two national political parties. The northern-based Federalist Party was ostensibly headed by the incumbent president, John Adams, but largely directed by his predecessor’s Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. The southern-centered Republican Party, which confusingly morphed into the modern Democratic Party, was led by the incumbent vice president, Thomas Jefferson, who under the Constitution as it then operated earned his post by coming in second in the 1796 election, and former Virginia congressman James Madison. Adams and Jefferson were destined for a rematch in 1800.

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