Hard Times and The Pursuit of Happiness 

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.

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2 Responses to Hard Times and The Pursuit of Happiness 

  1. tom rose says:

    Interesting books and I look forward to Moby Dick. Dorcey and I have both read all Wallace Stegner books and loved them. The current article on Samantha Power in the New Yorker is fabulous and all about leadership. My best books this year:
    1. THE LIVES OF ERICH FROMM LOVES PROPHET Lawrence J Friedman
    2. IDENTITY’S ARCHITECT, A BIOGRAPHY OF ERIK ERIKSON Lawrence J Friedman
    3. IN THE HEART OF THE SEAS, S. Y. Agnon winner of the Novel Prize for Literature, 1966 and I am looking forward to many of his other books.
    4. THE JEW AND THE LOTUS
    5. GOD IS A VERB KABBALAH AND HE PRACTICE OF MYSTICAL JUDAISM, Rabbi David Cooper
    6. YOU SHALL BE AS GODS A RADICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT AND ITS TRADITION, Erich Fromm
    7. THE DECEMBER PROJECT AN EXTRAORDINARY RABBI AND A SKEPTICAL SEEKER CONFRONT LIFE’S GREAT MYSTERY, Dara Davidson
    8. THE LETTERS OF WILLIAM STYRON edited by Rose Styron
    9. and many more, etc.

  2. tom rose says:

    Tom, I just noticed that your site is now leadership, justice and compassion. All the books I just mentioned are about compassion and justice and some also leadership. Everything I am learning about Judaism includes compassion and justice. Judaism is about ethics and rituals, and increasingly for many Jews ethics is more important than rituals. Ethics includes compassion. It would appear to me, partly supported by what you wrote, that ethics for millions of Americans is not part of our soul or vocabulary. Reading the Forward Jewish New York daily newspaper and weekly is a continual discussion about Jewish ethics and rituals. Like The New Yorker, there are very few who read it carefully. So what are we to do? You and I agree about giving money, but that is only a partial remedy. In my zip code there are almost no readers of either publication.

    As to your questions and comments about black and white, I had many more black friends in college than I do now, and when I was in the civil rights movement even more. It was a CR movement for all people and the minority of whites were accepted until black power changed everything, although I was able to remain friends with Stokely and Marion until the end of their lives. As a community college professor, by the late 60s and into the 70s students and faculty became more separate and it became almost impossible for black and white students to interact. By the 21st century the cafeteria was almost as segregated as churches. In 1960 the reason I attended the Fellowship Church that Howard Thurman founded was that it was the only integrated church in San Francisco, and Jews were also accepted. America is now almost totally segregated by race, ethnicity and neighborhood, and most people talk only to their “own kind.” This is the failure of America. Tom

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