The Legacy of James MacGregor Burns
New Horizons in Leadership Studies series
Edited by George R. Goethals and Douglas Bradburn
Chapter 10: Theory and practice: James MacGregor Burns
Jim Burns believed passionately that theory should be married to practice, for the benefit of theory as well as practice and for the benefit of practitioners as well as scholars. Real leadership matched ends to means, ideas to methods, and true scholarship was deeply informed by experience in the field. In fact Burns typically described himself, modestly, as a “student of leadership.” This chapter will look at Burns as a scholar who made use of his own experience and of the knowledge he gleaned from his study of and interactions with presidents and other leaders. He learned from presidents like Carter and Clinton even as his ideas about leadership influenced their administrations. His work was invoked in the Nixon White House, and, even before his presidency began, Barack Obama was assessed in terms of Burns’s theory of transformational leadership. But, for this chapter, we will focus on the trio of presidents who had the greatest impact on Burns’s understanding of leadership, on the crucial link between theory and practice—FDR, JFK, and LBJ. Burns’s political education began early, at the family dinner table as a teenager in Lexington, Massachusetts, where he strenuously defended FDR’s agenda against relatives with strong Republican moorings. His formal political education began as a young protégé of Max Lerner, a radical writer and his mentor and teacher at Williams College. And in 1939, freshly graduated from Williams, Burns secured the necessary Washington, DC internship with Congressman Abe Murdock, a Democrat from Utah.
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