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 / Winter 2003 / Issue 33(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2003: Leadership

Khurana questions the conventional wisdom that the job of leaders is to be Giuliani-like, helping organizations face up to crises and guiding them to the future by way of motivating visions. Because boards believe that, he says CEO job descriptions end up as calls for change agents with charisma, chemistry, and executive presence. However, although Khurana amasses data to support his arguments, somehow they don’t ring entirely true in light of experience. Many outside CEO hires — Lou Gerstner, for one — are far more analytical than charismatic. Clearly, Khurana is correct that Americans overrate charisma and err in portraying leadership as a solo act. However, few boards actually seem to focus on charisma in CEO searches, looking instead for related experience and the demonstrated ability to execute and implement. And while he is probably correct that many qualified insiders are overlooked in CEO successions, there are often good reasons to look outside. When disruptive technology, regulatory change, or new competitors alter the fundamentals of a business, an outsider is often required to lead a successful transformation, as the IBM board’s appointment of Gerstner illustrates.

James MacGregor Burns’s seminal work, Leadership (Harper & Row, 1978), introduced the concept of “transforming leadership,” which he distinguishes from “transactional leadership” primarily because it has a moral dimension: “Transforming leaders define public values that embrace the supreme and enduring principles of a people.” Such leaders address the wants of the most wanting, and their ranks include such notables as Gandhi, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and Mandela. The book was an attempt to deal with the tough philosophical question of whether Hitler, Stalin, and Mao should be thought of as great leaders, even if they were bad men. Most critics concluded that Burns’s effort to resolve that question was a useful and brilliant failure.

Collective Activity
It is fascinating to watch as Burns again attempts to come to grips with the complexities of leadership. In Transforming Leadership: The New Pursuit of Happiness (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003), he tries to wrestle it down once and for all with a grand theory. The premise of the current book is that leadership is the “X factor” in historic causation, the key to understanding why things happen. Although most historians focus on the contributions of individual leaders, Burns is wary of the traditional approach. He cites Erik Erickson’s concern that fearful people become “charisma hungry” in times of crisis, and notes that in most instances the net result is simply gratification of the leader’s “own psychological hunger.” But wary as Burns is of charisma, and as much as he claims leadership is a collective activity, he still seems to equate leadership with individual actions. His central point is that those actions must be undertaken for the good of the followers, not for the benefit of the leader.

Burns doesn’t shrink from the complexity and paradoxes of leadership — but his fascinating historical examples don’t necessarily illuminate the subject’s dark corners. The more he describes the categories into which he divides leadership, the murkier his distinctions become. Were LBJ and Queen Elizabeth I transformational or transactional leaders? Unhelpfully, Burns makes the case that they were both.

Burns still is capable of the elegant prose that brought tears to the eyes of those who read his masterful Vineyard of Liberty: The American Experiment (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), and he offers numerous apposite citations, for example, Lao Tzu on the characteristics of the moral leader:

Bearing, yet not possessing
Working, yet not taking credit
Leading, yet not dominating
This is the Primal Virtue

Sadly, Burns studiously avoids the subject of business leadership. It would be instructive to see him explore the business implications of his central thesis, the question raised by Khurana in a different context: Is leadership the “X factor” in the success of a corporation? And Burns’s view that the role of leadership “is to create and expand the opportunities that empower people to pursue happiness for themselves” would have been a perfect segue into an exploration of business leadership.

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