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'Transforming Leadership' by James MacGregor Burns

FDR had it. Gandhi had it. And President Bush has it, too

Sunday, June 01, 2003

By David M. Shribman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the past several months, an odd consensus has gelled in the political community. On the left and on the right, there is broad agreement: Whatever the elusive quality of leadership is, George W. Bush has it. How he acquired it is a matter of speculation. What he is doing with it is a matter of controversy. But that he possesses it is not broadly disputed.

 
 
"Transforming Leadership"

By James MacGregor Burns

Atlantic Monthly Press ($25)

   
 

That said, for most of us leadership is uncomfortably close to pornography; we don't know how to define it, but we know it when we see it. But James MacGregor Burns isn't like most of us. In a lifetime of scholarship, he has sought to identify leadership, analyze leadership, understand leadership. Now a man admired for his biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and remembered for his trilogy on American history has leaped into the leadership fracas. He knows it when he sees it, of course, but in his latest volume, he is seeking to define it, too.

It is no surprise that in this endeavor Burns, an emeritus professor of history at Williams College, should turn, once again, to Roosevelt. Many historians agree FDR was the preeminent president of the last century, so powerful a man and a presidential predecessor that he is the standard by which all modern presidents are judged. (If you doubt it, think of how many times you have seen articles on presidents' first hundred days; the notion, borrowed from Napoleon, was enshrined in the American imagination by Roosevelt in 1933.)

Burns has written a broad treatise -- it is an essay, really -- that touches on figures as disparate as (to select a few on the jacket cover) Gandhi, Mandela, Jefferson, Gorbachev, Elizabeth I and de Gaulle. But his argument is crystalized by Roosevelt's example.

He argues that FDR exerted different styles of leadership at different periods of his four terms, that Roosevelt alternately followed and then dominated public opinion and that Roosevelt mastered innovation in the service of his presidency.

And he shows that Roosevelt was able to enlist the public in what he calls "an epic engagement between president and people." He did it in many ways, but never as effectively as he did with three simple words embedded in his remarks when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1936: "I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war."

Obsessed with his place in history -- his legacy, as he called it repeatedly -- Bill Clinton often bemoaned the fact that his presidency did not coincide with a great debate (such as slavery) or great challenge (such as a world war). Implicit in that sentiment is the notion that without a great debate or a great challenge, a president himself cannot achieve greatness.

Oddly enough, Burns, whose last book touched at great length on Theodore Roosevelt, who disproves the Clinton greatness thesis, agrees -- to a point. He believes conflict, and by that he mostly means war, is an important element in greatness.

"The most arresting rulers in world history have not been the supreme peacemakers but the warriors," Burns writes. "Wars propelled Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Philip II, Napoleon, Churchill and de Gaulle to world fame; warmongering plunged Hitler, Mussolini, and Japanese military chieftains into blackest notoriety. Cromwell, Washington, Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao established their places in history through violent revolution."

That is a grim thought, but by extension probably not wrong. Surely greatness in leadership requires conflict of some sort. But, Burns also argues, leadership also requires values.

"Addressing the needs and hopes of millions of people, leaders seek to transcend everyday brokerage and bargaining in order to rally followers behind those values," he writes.

"Once that engagement is made, leaders and the people they mobilize can empower one another more and more as long as people's material needs and visionary hopes are met -- and as long as the power holders are challenged by a loyal opposition that will keep them honest."

At the heart of this conversation about leadership is Burns' conviction that the highest form of this art is "transforming leadership," the quality that allows leaders to inspire followers.

In this context, Burns argues that FDR was not really a transformational leader until 1938, when he tried to reorganize American political conflict by attempting to purge his party and transform it into an instrument of political liberalism.

This slender volume, stuffed with anecdote and analysis, is more than a study of leadership. It is also a call to arms -- for a radically different sort of conflict from the ones engaged in by the great figures of history. Burns has in mind a great conflict involving great values. He envisions a worldwide fight against poverty and hunger.

"In millennia past, the most potent act of the rulers of nations has been the recruitment and deployment into battle of great armies of their people," Burns writes.

"Can we, in coming decades, mobilize throughout the world a new, militant, but peaceful army -- tens of thousands of leaders who would in turn recruit fresh leaders at the grass roots, in villages and neighborhoods, from among the poor themselves, to fight and win a worldwide war against desperation?"

The man knows a challenge when he sees one -- and the one he envisions calls for transformational leadership of the greatest order.


Post-Gazette Executive Editor David M. Shribman can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1890.

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