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 10: Theory and practice: James MacGregor Burns

Georgia Sorenson


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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