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by James MacGregor Burns

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Pulitzer Prize–winning historian James MacGregor Burns’s definitive look at the power of transformational leadership, from Moses to Machiavelli to Martin Luther King Jr.
Historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns has spent much of his career documenting the use and misuse of power by leaders throughout history. In this groundbreakingSee more details below


Pulitzer Prize–winning historian James MacGregor Burns’s definitive look at the power of transformational leadership, from Moses to Machiavelli to Martin Luther King Jr.
Historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns has spent much of his career documenting the use and misuse of power by leaders throughout history. In this groundbreaking study, Burns examines the qualities that make certain leaders—in America and elsewhere—succeed as transformative figures. Through insightful anecdotes and historical analysis, Burns scrutinizes the charisma, vision, and persuasive power of individuals able to imbue followers with a common sense of purpose, from the founding fathers to FDR, Ghandi to Napoleon. Since its original publication in 1970, Leadership has set the standard for scholarship in the field.

Editorial Reviews

Walter Johnson
To some historians Professor Burns is a fine political scientist. To some political scientists he is a fine historian. In fact, he is the best of both disciplines....

"Many other writers throughout history have analyzed leadership. What is impressive about this new study is the range of Burns' reading about both Western and non-Western civilizations, his freedom from cultural bias, the insights he derives from his own observation of and participation in American politics, and his willingness to grow intellectually....

"An impressive book. Although Burns is sophisticated about the frailties of people, Leadership is also an optimistic book. He ends his study with these words: 'That people can be lifted into their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership and the moral and practical theme of this work.'
The Washington Post

Kenneth B. Clark
Beyond his past major contributions to our understanding of the American political system, in this new book James MacGregor Burns demonstrates that he is not only one of America's outstanding political scientists but a major social philosopher as well. This volume, combining vivid biography, dramatic history, and political theory, woven together in an engrossing fabric, impresses one with its probing insights into the complexities, inconsistencies and the interrelationships among the various parts of the American social, political and economic system. Burns shares his observations and a comprehensive analysis of the dynamic gestalt that is the American political system and nonsystem, and compares it throughout history with the political systems and the revolutions of other nations....

"This is an important book, a book that combines an analysis of the past and a penetrating observation of the present with implications for the future stability of American democracy. —City News

From the Publisher
"An impressive book. Although Burns is sophisticated about frailties of people, Leadership is also an optimistic book." —The Washington Post

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By James MacGregor Burns


Copyright © 1978 James MacGregor Burns
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4517-0



We search eagerly for leadership yet seek to cage and tame it. We recoil from power yet we are bewitched or titillated by it. We devour books on power—power in the office, power in the bedroom, power in the corridors. Connoisseurs of power purport to teach about it—what it is, how to get it, how to use it, how to "gain total control" over "everything around you." We think up new terms for power: clout, wallop, muscle. We measure the power of the aides of Great Men by the number of yards between their offices and that of Number One. If authority made the powerful "giddy, proud, and vain," as Samuel Butler wrote, today it entrances both the seekers of power and the powerless.

Why this preoccupation, this near-obsession, with power? In part because we in this century cannot escape the horror of it. Stalin controlled an apparatus that, year after year and in prison after prison, quietly put to death millions of persons, some of them old comrades and leading Bolsheviks, with hardly a ripple of protest from others. Between teatime and dinner Adolf Hitler could decide whether to release a holocaust of terror and death in an easterly or westerly direction, with stupendous impact on the fate of a continent and a world. On smaller planes of horror, American soldiers have slaughtered women and children cowering in ditches; village tyrants hold serfs and slaves in thrall; revolutionary leaders disperse whole populations into the countryside, where they dig or die; the daughter of Nehru jails her political adversaries—and is jailed in turn.

Then too, striking displays of power stick in our memories; the more subtle interplays between leaders and followers elude us. I have long been haunted by the tale of an encounter with Mtésa, king of Uganda, that John Speke brought back from his early travels to the source of the Nile. The Englishman was first briefed on court decorum: while the king's subjects groveled before the throne, their faces plastered with dirt, Speke would be allowed to sit on a bundle of grass. Following an interlude of Wasoga minstrels playing on tambira, the visitor was summoned to the court, where women, cows, goats, porcupines, and rats were arrayed for presentation. The king showed an avid interest in the guns Speke had brought. He invited his guest to take potshots at the cows, and great applause broke out when Speke dropped five in a row. Speke reported further:

"The king now loaded one of the carbines I had given him with his own hands, and giving it full-cock to a page, told him to go out and shoot a man in the outer court, which was no sooner accomplished than the little urchin returned to announce his success with a look of glee such as one would see in the face of a boy who had robbed a bird's nest, caught a trout, or done any other boyish trick. The king said to him, 'And did you do it well?' 'Oh, yes, capitally.'" The affair created little interest in the court, Speke said, and no one inquired about the man who had been killed.

It is a story to make one pause. Mtésa was an absolute monarch, but could a man be randomly shot at the whim of the tyrant—indeed, of a boy? Did the victim have no mother or father, no protective brother, no lover, no comrade with whom he had played and hunted?

The case of the nurse of the children of Frederick William, king of Prussia, may be more instructive. Despising the mildly bohemian ways of his oldest son, the king heaped humiliation on him and flogged him in public. When the crown prince fled with a companion, the king had them arrested, falsely told his wife that their son had been executed, beat his children when they intervened in their brother's behalf, and dealt with the companion—the son and grandson of high-ranking generals—by setting aside a life imprisonment sentence imposed by a military court in favor of the death penalty. He forced his son to watch while his friend was beheaded. One of the few persons to stand up to the king was the nurse, who barred his way when he tried to drag his cowering children out from under the table, and she got away with it.

Sheer evil and brute power always seem more fascinating than complex human relationships. Sinners usually outsell saints, at least in Western cultures, and the ruthless exercise of power somehow seems more realistic, moral influence more naive. Above all, sheer massed power seems to have the most impact on history. Such, at least, is this century's bias. Perhaps I exemplify the problem of this distorted perception in my own intellectual development. Growing up in the aftermath of one world war, taking part in a second, studying the records of these and later wars, I have been struck by the sheer physical impact of men's armaments. Living in the age of political titans, I too have assumed that their actual power equaled their reputed power. As a political scientist I have belonged to a "power school" that analyzed the interrelationships of persons on the basis only of power. Perhaps this was fitting for an era of two world wars and scores of lesser ones, the murder of entire cities, bloody revolutions, the unleashing of the inhuman force of the atom.

I fear, however, that we are paying a steep intellectual and political price for our preoccupation with power. Viewing politics as power has blinded us to the role of power in politics and hence to the pivotal role of leadership. Our failure is partly empirical and psychological. Consider again the story of Mtésa and Speke. It is easy to suspend disbelief and swallow the story whole, enticing as it is. But did the English visitor actually know what happened in the outer court? Was the king staging an act for him? If a man did die, was he an already doomed culprit? If not, would Mtésa later pay a terrible price at the hands of his subjects? Or turn back to the brutality of Frederick William? Was his "absolute" power more important than the moral courage of the nurse who resisted him? So shocking are the acts of tyrants, so rarely reported the acts of defiance, that we forget that even the most despotic are continually frustrated by foot-dragging, quiet sabotage, communications failures, stupidity, even aside from moral resistance and sheer physical circumstance.

Our main hope for disenthralling ourselves from our overemphasis on power lies more in a theoretical, or at least conceptual, effort, than in an empirical one. It lies not only in recognizing that not all human influences are necessarily coercive and exploitative, that not all transactions among persons are mechanical, impersonal, ephemeral. It lies in seeing that the most powerful influences consist of deeply human relationships in which two or more persons engage with one another. It lies in more realistic, a more sophisticated understanding of power, and of the often far more consequential exercise of mutual persuasion, exchange, elevation, and transformation—in short, of leadership. This is not to exorcise power from its pervasive influence in our daily lives; recognizing this kind of power is absolutely indispensable to understanding leadership. But we must recognize the limited reach of "total" or "coercive" power. We must see power—and leadership—as not things but as relationships. We must analyze power in a context of human motives and physical constraints. If we can come to grips with these aspects of power, we can hope to comprehend the true nature of leadership—a venture far more intellectually daunting than the study of naked power.

The Two Essentials of Power

We all have power to do acts we lack the motive to do—to buy a gun and slaughter people, to crush the feelings of loved ones who cannot defend themselves, to drive a car down a crowded city sidewalk, to torture an animal.

We all have the motives to do things we do not have the resources to do—to be President or senator, to buy a luxurious yacht, to give away millions to charity, to travel for months on end, to right injustices, to tell off the boss.

The two essentials of power are motive and resource. The two are interrelated. Lacking motive, resource diminishes; lacking resource, motive lies idle. Lacking either one, power collapses. Because both resource and motive are needed, and because both may be in short supply, power is an elusive and limited thing. Human beings, both the agents and the victims of power, for two thousand years or more have tried to penetrate its mysteries, but the nature of power remains elusive. Certainly no one has mastered the secrets of personal power as physicists have penetrated the atom. It is probably just as well.

To understand the nature of leadership requires understanding of the essence of power, for leadership is a special form of power. Forty years ago Bertrand Russell called power the fundamental concept in social science, "in the same sense in which Energy is a fundamental concept in physics." This is a compelling metaphor; it suggests that the source of power may lie in immense reserves of the wants and needs of the wielders and objects of power, just as the winds and the tides, oil and coal, the atom and the sun have been harnessed to supply physical energy. But it is still only a metaphor. What is power? The "power of A over B," we are told, "is equal to maximum force which A can induce on B minus the maximum resisting force which B can mobilize in the opposite direction." One wonders about the As and the Bs, the Xs and the Ys, in the equations of power. Are they mere croquet balls, knocking other balls and being knocked, in some game of the gods? Or do these As and Xs and the others have wants and needs, ambitions and aspirations, of their own? And what if a ball does not obey a god, just as the children's nurse stood in the autocrat's way? Surely this formula is more physics than power. But the formula offers one vital clue to power: power is a relationship among persons.

Power, says Max Weber—he uses the term Macht—"is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests." This formula helps the search for power, since it reminds us that there is no certain relationship between what P (power holder) does and how R (power recipient) responds. Those who have pressed a button and found no light turned on, or who have admonished a child with no palpable effect, welcome the factor of probability. But what controls the degree of probability? Motive? Intention? Power resources? Skill? Is P acting on his own, or is he the agent of some other power holder? And what if P orders R to do something to someone else—who then is the real power recipient? To answer such questions, P and R and all the other croquet players, mallets, and balls must be put into a broader universe of power relationships—that is, viewed as a collective act. Power and leadership become part of a system of social causation.

Essential in a concept of power is the role of purpose. This absolutely central value has been inadequately recognized in most theories of power. Power has been defined as the production of intended effects, but the crux of the matter lies in the dimensions of "intent." What is the nature (intensity, persistence, scope) of purpose? How is P's purpose communicated to R—and to what degree is that intent perceived by R as it is by P? Assuming an intent of P, to what extent is there a power relation if P's intent is influenced by P's prior knowledge and anticipation of R's intent? To what extent is intent part of a wider interaction among wants, needs, and values of P and R, before any overt behavior takes place? Few persons have a single intent; if P has more than one, are these intentions deemed equal, hierarchical, or unrelated? These relationships also define the exercise of power as a collective act.

A psychological conception of power will help us cut through some of these complexities and provide a basis for understanding the relation of power to leadership. This approach carries on the assumptions above: that power is first of all a relationship and not merely an entity to be passed around like a baton or hand grenade; that it involves the intention or purpose of both power holder and power recipient; and hence that it is collective, not merely the behavior of one person. On these assumptions I view the power process as one in which power holders (P), possessing certain motives and goals, have the capacity to secure changes in the behavior of a respondent (R), human or animal, and in the environment, by utilizing resources in their power base, including factors of skill, relative to the targets of their power-wielding and necessary to secure such changes. This view of power deals with three elements in the process: the motives and resources of power holders; the motives and resources of power recipients; and the relationship among all these.

The power holder may be the person whose "private motives are displaced onto public objects and rationalized in terms of public interest," to quote Harold Lasswell's classic formula. So accustomed are we to observing persons with power drives or complexes, so sensitive to leaders with the "will to power," so exposed to studies finding the source of the power urge in early deprivation, that we tend to assume the power motive to be exclusively that of seeking to dominate the behavior of others. "But must all experiences of power have as their ultimate goal the exercise of power over others?" David McClelland demands. He and other psychologists find that persons with high need for power ("n Power" may derive that need for power not only from deprivation but from other experiences. One study indicated that young men watching a film of John F. Kennedy's Inaugural felt strengthened and inspirited by this exposure to an admired leader. Other persons may draw on internal resources as they grow older and learn to exert power against those who constrain them, like children who self-consciously recognize their exercise of power as they resist their mothers' directives. They find "sources of strength in the self to develop the self."

These and other findings remind us that the power holder has a variety of motives besides that of wielding power over others. They help us correct the traditional picture of single-minded power wielders bent on exerting control over, respondents. (Their main motive may be to institute power over themselves.) In fact power holders may have as varied motives—of wants, needs, expectations, etc.—as their targets. Some may pursue not power but status, recognition, prestige, and glory, or they may seek power as an intermediate value instrumental to realizing those loftier goals. Some psychologists consider the need to achieve ("n Achievement" a powerful motive, especially in western cultures, and one whose results may be prized more as an attainment than as a means of social control. Some use power to collect possessions such as paintings, cars, or jewelry; they may collect wives or mistresses less to dominate them than to love or to display them. Others will use power to seek novelty and excitement. Still others may enjoy the exercise of power mainly because it enables them to exhibit—if only to themselves—their skill and knowledge, their ability to stimulate their own capacities and to master their environment. Those skilled in athletics may enjoy riding horseback or skiing as solitary pastimes, with no one but themselves to admire their skills. The motivational base of this kind of competence has been labeled "effectance" by Robert White.


Excerpted from Leadership by James MacGregor Burns. Copyright © 1978 James MacGregor Burns. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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