My summer reading, particularly books by James MacGregor Burns, whose passing I noted in my last blog has reinforced the importance of leadership development.
And I am eager to read Hard Times: Leadership in America, by Barbara Kellerman to be published in October. Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
According to the previews she attributes the contentious context of American society for making leadership more difficult than it has ever been. These are “Hard Times” she writes, for leaders everywhere since everyone serves in the same meta-context. Context awareness is as important as self-awareness for leadership effectiveness.
In his 2003 book, Transformational Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness, Burns contended that there is no such thing as bad leadership. Bad leadership, he wrote, is no leadership. Good leadership, which he defined as transformational is always about something good for individuals and society.
Kellerman disagreed. In her 2004 book, Bad Leadership she identified several well-known bad leaders describing how they moved to the dark side leadership: rigidity and callousness to corruption and even cruelty.
Yet Burns believed that leadership is never neutral – either good or bad. It is always about the good.
This has influenced my thinking about leaders and leadership development. While even good leaders can improve their effectiveness, leadership, as Burns taught us is always about something good. Leadership development then is about identifying and responding to human need and assisting others to transform their own lives and communities.
In comparing Hitler and Gandhi, Hitler, by Burns’ definition was a tyrant not a leader. Leadership is a response to human need as demonstrated by Gandhi in his drive for Indian self-determination. It is always moral and ethical.
In the epilogue Burns proposed his concept of leadership as a strategy to end global poverty, a universal context he suggests that leaders cannot ignore.
Given the billions of people who barely survive on less that $2 a day he would replace “top-down” or “power-over” leaders with “freedom leaders,” to equip and train local people to pursue their own best interests and the good of their neighborhoods.
Leadership is never easy, but it can and should always be about something good. As Burns documents with examples from around the world, this kind of leadership produces better observable outcomes, even, or especially during hard times.