The Passing of Burns and Bennis – gurus of leadership development

With the passing of James MacGregor Burns on July 15, age 96, and Warren G. Bennis on July 31, age 89, we lost the two eminent leadership scholars.  Burns taught at Williams College and Bennis at USC.

They were prolific writers, for the academy as well as the public, writing well into their 80’s.   Burns wrote more than 20 books and Bennis more than 30.   At 94, Burns’ published his final book “Fire and Light: How The Enlightenment Changed Our World.” Bennis published his memoir, “Still Surprised,” at 86.   So much for early retirement!

Each of them set out to correct long-held leadership theories and behaviors that they believed are counterproductive and ill-suited for our times.

In his 1978 seminal book “Leadership,” still in use as a textbook, Burns made the case for ‘transforming’ leadership.’

Transforming leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to high levels of motivation and morality.

That people can be lifted to their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership.

Truly great and creative leaders arouse people’s hopes and aspirations and expectations.

Burns contrasted power and leadership.

Power is different.  Power manipulates people as they are; leadership as they could be.  Power manages, leadership mobilizes.  Power impacts; leadership engages.   Power tends to corrupt, leadership to create.

As described by Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor, Burns contrasted transforming leaders, — “who seek to create change by helping followers become better versions of themselves” to transactional leaders, — “those who take a more short-term approach to achieving goals through negotiations and compromise.”   Transactional leaders are like those Adam Grant describes as “takers” and “matchers,” leaders who are looking for something in return.

Through this lens he was a keen observer of leaders, particularly presidents, winning the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his 1970 “Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom.” He continued to study the presidency through the Clinton/Gore years.  In his 1984 book, “The Crisis of Presidency” he lamented the lack of transforming leaders in politics as well as the rest of society.

Bennis will be remembered for challenging the ‘great man’ (or woman) theory of leadership, that leaders are born not made.  You are either a natural born leader or not.

In his signature book “On Becoming a Leader,” he described the path to leadership development.

Becoming a leader isn’t easy, just as becoming a doctor or a poet isn’t easy, and those who claim otherwise are fooling themselves.  But learning to lead is a lot easier than most of us think it is, because each of us contains the capacity for leadership.

As Peter Drucker was the guru of management studies, Bennis was identified by a Forbes columnist as “The ‘Dean’ of Leadership Gurus,” driven to fill what he observed as our leadership vacuum.

I wonder to what degree they were influenced by their military experience.  Burns served as an Army combat historian in the Pentagon during WWII, for which he received a Bronze Star.   At 19, Army lieutenant Bennis, was one of the youngest platoon leaders to serve in Europe arriving just as the battle of the Bulge was concluding.

They were engaged in the war with its tyrants and heros.   In a tribute to Bennis, Forbes columnist Rob Asghar wrote that his friend Bennis often spoke and wrote about ‘crucible experiences’ – “about how great leaders often were tested and refined in the searing heat of trials, setbacks and failures.”

Burns and Bennis have shaped how we think about leadership today.   In war and peace, they would contend that an effective leader is more than a boss.   Robert Greenleaf came along later to describe this as servant leadership.  Now the young Adam Grant has written “Give and Take,” about how successful leaders give forward, investing in their followers with no expectation of something in return.

Having read a few of their books I’m not sure whether Burns and Bennis believed that leaders, including presidents are better now than in the past.  However they offered a vision of what good leadership might be.  Their life’s work was to chart a course for leaders who can encourage and motivate all us to our better selves.  They never quit.  Both were active until their final days.

Strategy, Tactics and Drifting

Another leadership lesson from sailing –

Last week the owner of a used bookstore in Annapolis told me that she has just received her real estate license, with which she hopes to provide additional income to support her life’s work – the bookstore.  Selling real estate to support the bookstore is simply a tactic to achieve her strategic goal.

I was thinking about this later in the day while sailing my sloop JOY south on the Severn River past the U.S. Naval Academy into the Chesapeake Bay – where there is enough open water to sail any direction I chose.

Learning to make tactical moves, which may appear to be off coarse to reach a goal is one of the first lessons I learned when I took up sailing.   Unlike the ancient square-riggers that had to wait for favorable following winds, modern sailboats can sail in any direction, even into the wind.

Well almost.  Whether it’s a little 13’ Sunfish or a high-tech America’s Cup catamaran, a sailboat can get no closer to the wind than about 45 degrees.   However, with a series of 90-degree turns called tacking (thus tactical) it can reach a windward destination.

I’ve had people onboard who had a hard time understanding how the boat could sail into the wind, or why I would tack away from the destination in order to get there.

The same is true with leaders and their strategic and tactical objectives.    There are times when leaders must take a direction that seems off course in order to reach their ultimate goal.   The winds are not always favorable.   The old Irish blessing – “May the road rise up to meet you, May the wind always be at your back,” is a nice thought but unrealistic.   To reach our goals, destinations and aspirations, in life and leadership as well as sailing, we learn to navigate head winds rather than just wait for following winds to push us in the direction we would like to go.

When sailing windward I need to know when to tack back across the wind (‘coming about’) to stay on course.   Otherwise, I will never reach my destination.    Likewise when a tactic becomes strategy the ultimate goal is lost.  A strategic objective is an end; a tactic is means to an end rather than the end in itself.

All strategies, whether for personal or organizational direction require tactics.   That’s the difference between moving toward a goal and drifting.  Leaders who are driven by circumstances are drifting.    Waiting for favorable winds, as the ancient mariners knew all to well is unpredictable, dangerous and often disastrous.

And because the wind is constantly shifting I have to continually adjust the sails or change coarse in order to get where I want to go.    Commenting to me about a difficult circumstance, a man about my age said, ‘At this point in my life this is not what I expected.’  And then went on to describe how he is responding to his own head winds.   Life is seldom what we expected.

Of course, I can just drift – which occasionally I do when sailing.   Sometimes it’s fun to just let the wind take me wherever.   But sooner or later I have to use the wind to return home or reach my destination.  Drifting won’t get me there.   Strategy and tactics will.

I hope her real estate tactic works.   I really enjoy the used bookstore.