Politics, Ethics and Change
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Politics, Ethics and Change

The Legacy of James MacGregor Burns

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.
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Chapter 2: Leadership without leaders, followers, or causality: tribute and tribulation for the intellectual legacy of James MacGregor Burns

Richard A. Couto


Burns’s 1978 book Leadership subtly challenged the leader-centric theories in the field of leadership studies. Burns thought the then current paradigm of leadership bred mediocrity in our knowledge about leadership by its focus on the actions, behaviors, and traits of those with explicit, positional authority within formal organizations. Collective action for social change, the primary concern for Burns, required more rigorous, scholarly paradigmatic features. His concern brought followers and values—moral values—to the forefront of leadership studies. After Leadership there was a noticeable shift in the study of leadership to incorporate values and followers. Twenty-five years later in another work, Transforming Leadership, Burns continued to move the needle away from leaders and towards values and followers. He specified the values of transforming leadership as “lofty public principles such as order, liberty, equality (including brotherhood and sisterhood), justice, the pursuit of happiness.” This work suggested some of the more critical perspectives on leadership and the dissatisfaction with the old but still dominant paradigm. For example, the notes of empowerment crescendo in this later work. Transforming leadership, Burns explains, liberates and empowers followers to envision, energize, and enable the pursuit and practice of these lofty principles. Power with others replaces power over them. Burns provided further direction for a new paradigm for leadership studies in a critique he made of Leadership. Starting with the most obvious, Burns pointed out the reductionist and oversimplified dichotomy of transactional and transforming leadership.

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