James Macgregor Burns was one of the first authors to embark on a more philosophical approach to understanding and describing leadership. He points a way to a general theory of leadership that is powerful enough to apply with great success.
A number of major themes emerge from his work:
Power and purpose - the esential elements of leadership
The first theme pinpoints the essential elements of leadership. Burns defines them as power and purpose.
James Macgregor Burns states, that we need to step back from our over-emphasis on power and see it and leadership not as things but as relationships.
We need to see power in a context of human motives and physical constraints.
Leadership as a relationship of power for a mutual purpose
Another major theme is that leadership is a relationship of power for a specific purpose that is consistent, or eventually consistent, with the motives, needs, and values of both the leader and the led.
Burns distinguishes between leaders and mere "power-wielders." Leaders in some way satisfy the motives and tap into the values of their followers, whereas power-wielders are intent only on realizing their own purposes.
Whether or not the people over whom they exert their power share the purposes, motives, and values is inconsequential to the power-wielder. To the leader, however, this sense of unity and shared values is his or her raison d'être and the source of his or her transforming influence.
Leadership as a moral endeavour
This is a useful distinction, especially as Burns elaborates on his most significant theme: leadership, to be more than wielding power or manipulating others, leadership as a moral endeavor.
This general theory of moral leadership is revolutionary. Theory and philosophy have been adeptly injected into the practice and techniques of "leadership."
By doing this, Burns forever added a dimension to leadership study that had been neglected. He points a way to clear up the confusion that sometimes exists as we focus on traits, behaviors, roles or situations.
What makes a leader different... from a manager?
James Macgregor Burns began to define the distinct nature of leadership as a separate behaviour and activity to that of management.
He moved us away from talking about leaders to talking about leadership. That shift alone made people view the topic in more philosophical ways instead of mechanistic or reductionist ways.
Burns general theory of moral leadership helps us begin to understand what it is that makes a leader different from great managers and why leadership is a significant force in society.
These notes are an abridged version of:
The Themes & Theory of Leadership of James Macgregor Burns
courtesy of: Matthew R. Fairholm, Ph.d. Director, Leadership Studies and Development, Center for Excellence in Municipal Management, The George Washington University. I recommend his excellent report to you.
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