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The Quest for a General Theory of Leadership

Edited by George R. Goethals and Georgia L.J. Sorenson

In this compelling book, top scholars from diverse fields describe the progress they have made in developing a general theory of leadership. Led by James MacGregor Burns, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the classic Leadership (1978), they tell the story of this intellectual venture and the conclusions and questions that arose from it.
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Chapter 11: Afterword

James MacGregor Burns


James MacGregor Burns Like other members of the GTOL group, I expect, I turned years ago to the study of leadership because I wanted to broaden my range of thought beyond my tra­ ditional disciplines. I had been teaching and writing for many years in my professional field of political science and in American history. Both of these fields had become so all-embracing and hence fragmented – as evidenced by their annual professional meetings – that I sought a rewarding field of study that had more intellectual unity, or at least coherence. As I began work in this new field, however, I found that I needed to educate myself further in psychology, because motivation is a central force in leadership, and in philosophy, because it posed the moral and ethical tests of leadership. All this raised a further difficulty. Was I moving beyond political science and history because of their extreme specialization only to encounter even more fragmentation in the study of leadership? This depended on the state of leader­ ship studies. History and political science were old and established, with little intellectual discipline in their disciplines. No one expected more from them. But the study of leadership in the late 1900s was still developing. There still might be an opportunity to develop a general theory or take a major step toward it. Thus I challenged my colleagues to attempt to develop the general theory. By the time the General Theory of Leadership Project held its long meeting at Mount Hope Farm...

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