Looking for a Leader

Leadership by James MacGregor Burns '47 Harper and Row, Publishers, 1978, 466 pp.

EMBALMED IN DUSTY, dank libraries, the social mind now holds an enormous cache of scholarship on political leaders--presidents, tyrants, revolutionaries--and followers--the rabble, the masses, the voting public. Historians endlessly debate the role of the great man, the masses and of fate in the unfolding of history. And usually the advocate defends one of these forces as the prime mover in history, or throws up his hands, frustrated by the epic proportions of the conflict.

James MacGregor Burns '47 tackles this age-old debate with remarkable vigor. Burns, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has long been fascinated by leaders, and much of his life's work has prepared him for writing Leadership. His biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, Woodrow Wilson, and of two Kennedy brothers have won him wide acclaim. But Burns has been more than a dispassionate observer; in 1958 he ran for Congress, and he has haunted Democratic national conventions for the past two decades.

With the political scientist's zeal for systematizing and defining our political intuitions, Burns modestly attempts to establish a "school of leadership." His purpose is no less than to develop a set of "standards for assessing past, present and potential leaders," and to explain the role of human beings in history. However, given the gargantuan size of his undertaking, the book's failure to meet the high expectations raised in the prologue and Part One does not entirely negate its contribution to our common fund of knowledge on the subject.

BURNS'S THEORY of leadership is suggestive and sophisticated, if not convincing. "Leadership," he contends, "is the reciprocal process of mobilizing, by persons with certain motives and values, various economic, political and other resources, in a context of competition and conflict, in order to realize goals independently or mutually held by both leaders and followers."

By defining leadership as a relationship between leaders and followers--not as a state attained by a vacuum-packed individual--Burns transcends the old assumption that either leaders or followers make history.


From this definition he outlines certain standards that a person would have to satisfy before a historian, or a follower, for that matter, could legitimately award him with the badge of leader. A dictator would not qualify because, theoretically, he would not have to respond to anyone's wishes but his own. A tyrant has no followers, only subjects, Burns argues. As a competitor in "a political marketplace," a leader must also have moral purpose to appeal and respond to his followers' wants and needs. In Burns's judgment, the Spiro Agnews and Adolph Hitlers of the world who pander to "the base instincts of persons" embody "the very negation of leadership." Leadership moves humanity towards betterment, not destruction.

Finally, leadership, which is an historical process of ceaseless interaction between leaders and followers, would result in a "change in leaders' and followers' motives and goals," which in turn would produce "a causal effect on social relations and political institutions" much as the interaction of chemicals changes their composition. The person without followers is not a leader, no matter how stirring his oratory or how right his cause may be, because he does not make a difference; he cannot change how people act.

Burns's standards of leadership are provocative, but inadequate both in theory and historical applications. Leaders will be beloved by the "bar of history" because they are moral and successful, but Burns neglects the role of human interaction--between the leader and the led--in his theory of human leadership. He lets the historian's job of separating the good from the evil take precedence over helping us to understand how the relationship between the leader and the led changes peoples' lives for better or worse.

Hitler and his followers, morally repugnant though they are, should not be excluded from the annals of leadership because their end was the destruction of human beings.

SEMANTIC ARGUMENTS about leadership are not particularly enlightening. And Burns fails to go beyond them to explain the forces that shape the relation of leaders to followers. Factors such as the distribution of power resources between leaders and followers and their means of interaction--be it through elections, political parties or riots--are not clearly laid out or given relative weights. These complexities emerge in some of his historical discussion, but they are not linked by a common thread of theory.

In his discussion of Mao's leadership in the Chinese revolution, he recognizes in a few paragraphs the importance of the Communist party hierarchy as the mediator between the masses and the leaders, but he does not explain why it worked when so many other attempts at leadership have failed.

It is unnecessarily dogmatic to require that leadership produce social or institutional change. A leader and his followers may interact with noble intentions and never converge with a propitious historical environment. To exclude American socialist Norman Thomas and his followers from the hallowed halls of leadership because they were unable to achieve what they had hoped to is an unjust rendering of leadership.

After the nightmare of World War II, we need to go beyond making obvious moral judgments of human beings in history. Unfortunately, James MacGregor Burns's book doesn't change the fact that "leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth." The mystery remains.