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James MacGregor Burns

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eBook - ePub


James MacGregor Burns

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A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian examines transformational leaders from Moses to Machiavelli to Martin Luther King Jr. in this "impressive book" ( The Washington Post ).
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, Gandhi to Napoleon. Since its original publication in 1970, Leadership has set the standard for scholarship in the field.

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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.
Still, there are the single-minded power wielders who fit the classical images of Machiavelli or Hobbes or Nietzsche, or at least the portraits of the modern power theorists. They consciously exploit their external resources (economic, social, psychological, and institutional) and their “effectance,” their training, skill, and competence, to make persons and things do what they want done. The key factor here is indeed “what they want done.” The motives of power wielders may or may not coincide with what the respondent wants done; it is P’s intention that controls. Power wielders may or may not recognize respondents’ wants and needs; if they do, they may recognize them only to the degree necessary to achieve their goals; and if they must make a choice between satisfying their own purposes and satisfying respondents’ needs, they will choose the former. Power wielders are not free agents. They are subject—even slaves—to pressures working on them and in them. But once their will and purpose is forged, it may be controlling. If P wants circuses and R wants bread, the power wielder may manipulate popular demand for bread only to the degree that it helps P achieve circuses. At the “naked power” extremity on the continuum of types of power holders are the practitioners of virtually unbridled power—Hitler, Stalin, and the like—subject always, of course, to empowering and constraining circumstances.
The foundation of this kind of control lies in P’s “power base” as it is relevant to those at the receiving end of power. The composition of the power base will vary from culture to culture, from situation to situation. Some power holders will have such pervasive control over factors influencing behavior that the imbalance between P’s and R’s power bases, and between the possibility of realizing P’s and R’s purposes, will be overwhelming. Nazi death camps and communist “re-education” camps are examples of such overwhelming imbalances. A dictator can put respondents physically in such isolation and under such constraint that they cannot even appeal to the dictator’s conscience, if he has one, or to sympathetic opinion outside the camp or outside the country, if such exists. More typical, in most cultures, is the less asymmetric relationship in which P’s power base supplies P with extensive control over R but leaves R with various resources for resisting. Prisons, armies, authoritarian families, concentration camps such as the United States relocation centers for Japanese-Americans during World War II, exemplify this kind of imbalance. There is a multitude of power balances in villages, tribes, schools, homes, collectives, businesses, trade unions, cities, in which most persons spend most of their lives.
To define power not as a property or entity or possession but as a relationship in which two or more persons tap motivational bases in one another and bring varying resources to bear in the process is to perceive power as drawing a vast range of human behavior into its orbit. The arena of power is no longer the exclusive preserve of a power elite or an establishment or persons clothed with legitimacy. Power is ubiquitous; it permeates human relationships. It exists whether or not it is quested for. It is the glory and the burden of most of humanity. A common, highly asymmetric, and sometimes cruel power relation can exist, for example, when one person is in love with another but the other does not reciprocate. The wants and needs and expectations of the person in love are aroused and engaged by a partner whose resources of attractiveness or desirability are high and whose own cluster of motives is less vulnerable. The person possessed by love can maneuver and struggle but still is a slave to the one loved, as the plight of Philip in Somerset Maugham’s marvelously titled Of Human Bondage illustrates.
Because power can take such multifarious, ubiquitous, and subtle forms, it is reflected in an infinite number of combinations and particularities in specific contexts. Even so, observers in those contexts may perceive their particular “power mix” as the basic and universal type, and they will base elaborate descriptions and theories of power on one model—their own. Even Machiavelli’s celebrated portrait of the uses and abuses of power, while relevant to a few other cultures and eras, is essentially culture-bound and irrelevant to a host of other power situations and systems. Thus popular tracts on power—how to win power and influence people—typically are useful only for particular situations and may disable the student of power coping with quite different power constellations.
Still there are ways of breaking power down into certain attributes that allow for some generalization and even theory-building. Robert Dahl’s breakdown of the reach and magnitude of power is useful and parsimonious. One dimension is distribution—the concentration and dispersion of power among persons of diverse influence in various political, social, and economic locations such as geographical areas, castes and classes, status positions, skill groups, communications centers, and the like. Another dimension is scope—the extent to which power is generalized over a wide range or is specialized. Persons who are relatively powerful in relation to one kind of activity, Dahl notes, may be relatively weak in other power relationships. Still another dimension is domain—the number and nature of power respondents influenced by power wielders compared to those who are not. These dimensions are not greatly different from Lasswell and Abraham Kaplan’s conception of the weight, scope, and domain of power.
A more common way to organize the data of power is in terms of the size of the arena in which power is exercised. The relation of P and R is, in many studies, typically one of micropower, as Edward Lehman calls it. Most power relations embrace a multiplicity of power holders; the relation is one among many Ps and many Rs. As power holders and respondents multiply, the number of relationships increases geometrically. Macropower, as Lehman contends, has distinct attributes of its own; the complex relations involved in the aggregate are not simply those of mic...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Contents
  5. Epigraph
  6. Prologue: The Crisis of Leadership
  7. Part I. Leadership: Power and Purpose
  8. Part II. Origins of Leadership
  9. Part III. Transforming Leadership
  10. Part IV. Transactional Leadership
  11. Part V. Implications: Theory and Practice
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. Sources
  14. Index
  15. Copyright
Citation styles for Leadership

APA 6 Citation

Burns, J. M. (2012). Leadership ([edition unavailable]). Open Road Media. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2385723/leadership-pdf (Original work published 2012)

Chicago Citation

Burns, James MacGregor. (2012) 2012. Leadership. [Edition unavailable]. Open Road Media. https://www.perlego.com/book/2385723/leadership-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Burns, J. M. (2012) Leadership. [edition unavailable]. Open Road Media. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2385723/leadership-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Burns, James MacGregor. Leadership. [edition unavailable]. Open Road Media, 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.