James MacGregor Burns

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

James MacGregor Burns (August 3, 1918 in Melrose, Massachusetts – July 15, 2014 in Williamstown, Massachusetts)[1] 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[2] and the National Book Award in History and Biography[3] for his work on America's 32nd president, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

Burns received his bachelor's degree from Williams College in 1939 and his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University in 1947[7] and also attended the London School of Economics.

Military service[edit]

After graduating from Williams, Burns went to Washington, D.C. and worked as a congressional aide. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army as a combat historian in the Pacific theater, and 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 the traits and qualities of officers, but not soldiers.[8]

Academic career[edit]

Burns joined the faculty of Williams College in 1947, and taught there for nearly 40 years, retiring in 1986.[9] 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. During the early 1990s he taught classes at the University of Maryland, where the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership was given his name.[7] In 2010 he won the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Award for Distinguished Writing in American History of Enduring Public Significance presented jointly by the Roosevelt Institute and the Society of American Historians.[10]

His students included Michael Beschloss.Georgia Sorenson,

Political career[edit]

In 1958 a liberal, Burns was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the Massachusetts's 1st congressional district, meeting then-U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and helping him gain Protestant support to get reelected, while Kennedy helped him gain Catholic support, gaining personal access that allowed him to write his biography, published in 1960, which calls him "casual as a cash register", "quiet, taut, efficient - sometimes, perhaps, even dull", and generally too cerebral and lacking in heart, angering Jackie, who said he "underestimated" him.[11] Burns was eventually elected a delegate to four Democratic National Conventions.


Burns died in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on July 15, 2014 at 95 after publishing more than 20 books.[9]

Views on government[edit]

As an admirer of a strong leader in the White House, Burns was critical of the U.S. governmental system of checks and balances, which he viewed as an obstacle to progress in times of a divided or oppositional Congress. In The Deadlock of Democracy (1963) and Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court (2009) he called for systemic changes, arguing for terms limits for Supreme Court justices, an end to miderm elections, and a population-based Senate.[12] Burns also advocated repeal of the Twenty-second Amendment to the United States Constitution to allow effective U.S. presidents to serve three or more terms of office.[13]

Theory of leadership[edit]

Burns' Leadership (1978) founded the field of Leadership studies, introducing 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.[14]


  • 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[citation needed], and inspired Georgia Jones Sorenson[15] to found the Center for Political Leadership and Participation at the University of Maryland, which Burns joined in 1993, causing the center to be renamed in his honor in 1997 as the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership;[16] it later became an independent nonprofit organization. In 2016, The James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership will become part of Churchill College and the Moller Institute at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.



  1. ^ www.politico.com
  2. ^ "History". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  3. ^ "National Book Awards – 1971". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  4. ^ Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, 1940-45. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970
  5. ^ Burns, James MacGregor. Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.
  6. ^ Accardi, Dina (2012-11-25). "Kent Cottage faces uncertain future". Burlington Union. 
  7. ^ a b Matt Schudel (July 17, 2014). "Historian won Pulitzer for biography on FDR". The Baltimore Sun. p. 6. 
  8. ^ Bruce Weber (July 15, 2014). "James MacGregor Burns, Scholar of Presidents and Leadership, Dies at 95". The New York Times. 
  9. ^ a b Tony Dobrowolski (July 15, 2014). "James MacGregor Burns, historian and FDR biographer, dies at age 95". The Berkshire Eagle. 
  10. ^ rooseveltinstitute.org
  11. ^ www.politico.com
  12. ^ www.nytimes.com
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Turan, S. & Sny, C. (1996). An exploration of transformational leadership and its role in strategic planning: A conceptual framework.
  15. ^ www.sagepub.com
  16. ^ www.nytimes.com
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