Book Reviews

The following book review was written by MPP student Christopher Handy.


Burns, James MacGregor. Leadership. Harper Perennial Political Classics, 2010. Pp. x, 462

The fallout from President Nixon’s transgressions compelled Burns to create a guide capable of developing leaders who could transform their followers for the better and leverage the transactions between follower and leader as a means to fulfill a purpose greater than power wielding. At the time there was only one established resource for aspiring leaders to draw from. Machiavelli’s The Prince was the standard bearer for those who sought positions of leadership. Through Leadership Burns brings the teachings from some of history’s greatest minds to bear on this topic. He embeds their philosophies to provide context for the historical examples used to build his base for exploring uncharted territory.

As a political historian, Burns was well acquainted with the great leaders of the past, and more importantly the context for their leadership. This book makes clear that no leader is either created or operates in a vacuum. Drawing from the social sciences, Burns provides an explanatory narrative for many historic giants like Lenin and Gandhi, allowing the reader to understand how these men were influenced by their environment to become capable of performing on such an immense scale. It is this base that sets the stage for the grand show in which leaders are just one of many actors. We are guided through the pageantry of a time and place where the slightest misstep would have dropped the leader to the level of mere follower or fifth tier leader; remembered only as a side note in the histories of the greats.

To Burns, leadership is not solely a duty set aside for the Executive. He brings to our attention the many layers of leadership through out every system. He focuses on government, but the lessons hold true for all leaders. The bureaucracy may be a monolithic behemoth, but on the peripheries of departments we find conflict calling for leaders to shape change. In the political parties we are exposed to a push and pull of influence at all levels of government. These transactions are performed by people who are leaders in one context and followers in another.

The paradox of leadership is that it is difficult to know who is doing the leading and who the following. For Burns the identifying mark is clear, “leadership brings about real change that leaders intend” (414). This causal link can not gauge the followers influence, but it shows a clear path to accomplish the purpose the anointed leader championed.

In our time leadership books are a genre of their own; an amazon search brings back 70,000 hits. Burns’s book remains the standard bearer. Modern books tend toward being simple how-to books on the methods used to become great leaders. This book represents one man’s search for true leadership. We travel alongside Burns as he allows us access to his process of filtering though the sages of old to identify what makes a leader. We walk with him beside the archetypes of leadership only to find that they are human. He brings us on his search through the systems of government leaving no stone unturned to find and label each new species. Not even the followers themselves are left without note; we find ourselves among them. Theses torrents of power tearing down complete systems, often only to reestablish the thing they have destroyed. “It is often said that the French Revolution devoured its own children … the leaders lost control and became puppets…” (214). This too was simply a failure of leadership to harness and guide that power toward the creation of an ideal in the aftermath of destruction.

To truly understand why leaders succeed and fail, we must first define leadership. “Leadership 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 leader and followers” (425). Though the author may at times be found pedantic; the key word for this definition is goals. They are that motivating force that allows the leader to mobilize followers, but the leader’s goal is not always the dominant force moving action. Leaders, sub-leaders, large groups and small, will rally under one flag if their goals can be wrapped up in the leader’s grand strategy.

These goals are often points of conflict that leaders can use to mobilize groups that would normally be in conflict. Misunderstanding these layers of complex interactions controlling group dynamics have led to the downfall of many leaders. Though systematic change is rare, it is obtainable for adaptable leaders who can form and reform alliances while continuing to build support for the attainment of their goals. Other leaders chiseling away at the peripheries making small changes over time can lead to a great shift without most of humanity knowing things had been different.

The beauty of this book is that there is not a necessity to read it in its entirety. An understanding of leadership in every political realm is not necessary for everyone. This broad treatise of the dynamics of varied scenarios will provide context and ensure the reader a balanced perspective. However, simply focusing all your allotted reading time on the chapters regarding the executive would provide the minimum necessary to effectively lead an organization.

Until you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in Leadership, I will arm you with some parting words of wisdom. Leadership is, “… collective. ‘one-man leadership’ is a contradiction of terms” (452). “…dissensual. The dynamo of political action, meaningful conflict, produces engaged leaders, who in turn generate more conflict among the people” (453). “…causative. …the result of the interactive process is a change in leaders’ and followers’ motives and goals that produce a causal effect on social relations and political institutions” (454). “… morally purposeful. All leadership is goal oriented” (455). “Transforming leadership is elevating. It is moral but not moralistic.” (455). May these words aid you as you engage in the conflicts that lay ahead.