James MacGregor Burns

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For other people named James Burns, see James Burns (disambiguation).

James MacGregor Burns (August 3, 1918 – July 15, 2014) was an American historian and political scientist, presidential biographer, and authority on leadership studies. He was the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College and Distinguished Leadership Scholar at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. In 1971, Burns received the Pulitzer Prize[1] and the National Book Award in History and Biography[2] for his work on America's 32nd president, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom.[3]

Burns shifted the focus of leadership studies from the traits and actions of great men to the interaction of leaders and their constituencies as collaborators working toward mutual benefit.[4] He was best known for his contributions to the transactional, transformational, aspirational, and visionary schools of leadership theory.


Early life[edit]

Burns grew up in Burlington, Massachusetts where he attended grammar school at the Burlington Union School and attended Lexington High School in neighboring Lexington, Massachusetts, and graduated in 1935.[5]

He received his bachelor's degree from Williams College and his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University and also attended the London School of Economics.

Military service[edit]

Burns served in the military as a combat historian in the Pacific theater during World War II. He was awarded the Bronze Star and four Battle Stars. Throughout his military adventures, Burns noticed that when leadership was mentioned, it was in terms of officers and their traits and qualities but not soldiers.[6]

Academic career[edit]

He taught at Williams College for nearly forty years.[7] A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is past president of the American Political Science Association and the International Society of Political Psychology.

Political career[edit]

Burns was the Democratic nominee for the 1st Congressional District of Massachusetts in 1958 and was elected a delegate to four Democratic National Conventions.

Burns advocated repeal of the Twenty-second Amendment to the United States Constitution to allow effective US presidents to serve three or more terms of office.[8]


He died in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on July 15, 2014, at 95.[9]

Theory of leadership[edit]

Burns' Leadership (1978) introduced two types of leadership: transactional leadership, in which leaders focus on the relationship between the leader and follower, and transformational leadership, in which leaders focus on the beliefs, needs, and values of their followers.[10]

Excerpts from Burns's book, Leadership:

  • Leadership over human beings is exercised when persons with certain motives and purposes mobilize, in competition or conflict with others, institutional, political, psychological, and other resources so as to arouse, engage, and satisfy the motives of followers... in order to realize goals mutually held by both leaders and followers....
  • Transformational leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.
  • That people can be lifted into their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership and the moral and practical theme of this work.

His work has influenced other transformational leadership theorists, such as Bernard Bass, Bruce Avolio, and Kenneth Leithwood.



  1. ^ "History". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  2. ^ "National Book Awards – 1971". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  3. ^ Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, 1940-45. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970
  4. ^ Burns, James MacGregor. Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.
  5. ^ Accardi, Dina (2012-11-25). "Kent Cottage faces uncertain future". Burlington Union. 
  6. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/us/james-m-burns-a-scholar-of-presidents-and-leadership-dies-at-95.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=HpSumSmallMediaHigh&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0
  7. ^ Berkshire Eagle (1918-08-03). "James MacGregor Burns, historian and FDR biographer, dies at age 95 - Berkshire Eagle Online". Berkshireeagle.com. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  8. ^ Burns, James Macgregor. Running Alone: Presidential Leadership—JFK to Bush II : Why It Has Failed and How We Can Fix It. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
  9. ^ Berkshire Eagle (1918-08-03). "James MacGregor Burns, historian and FDR biographer, dies at age 95 - Berkshire Eagle Online". Berkshireeagle.com. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  10. ^ Turan, S. & Sny, C. (1996). An exploration of transformational leadership and its role in strategic planning: A conceptual framework.

External links[edit]