Posts Tagged ‘MacGregor Burns’

What does it mean “to lead”? What is leadership?

January 31, 2011

This is one of the big questions facing members of the Alberta Party, and the Progressive Conservative Party, right now.  In fact, it is a question that every Albertan should be thinking about.

“To lead” is often thought to be the work of “the leader”, and we tend to think of “the leader” as one person — man or woman — with ego, charisma, and other strengths and virtues so notable that the leader can carry the entire project, party, company, community on his/her shoulders.  The big recurring problem is that, when the project, party, company or community stumbles or fails, it is the leader’s fault, and the perceived solution is to remove the flawed leader and find the next charismatic leader – the one who has no flaws, until performance under pressure reveals flaws once again.

The perfect paramount leader is not a solution to the challenge of leadership.  On the contrary, the search for the perfect paramount leader is dis-utopian, for two reasons.  First, there ain’t no such animal.  Second, in the search, we project our hope in the wrong direction.  We weaken our community and our democracy.  Personally, I don’t believe that we are better off for having had almost 15 years of ‘strong’ leadership in the person of Premier Klein.  The comment is not directed at the man:  it is directed at what Albertans accepted – and live with — as the consequence of being deferential to a ‘strong’ leader.

An American political scientist, MacGegor Burns wrote a great book – Leadership –that made some very important points about leadership, and what it means. “to lead”.  (The book won the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction, years ago.)

Burns made two arguments that are worth considering carefully.

First, he said that “leadership” is often a label applied to the characteristics or person of someone who is said to be “a leader”.  Burns argued that “leadership” is actually a label for the relationship that exists between the leader of the moment and the followers of the moment.  If the trajectory of the “leader” is one rail line leading upward, the trajectory of the community is a parallel rail line leading upward, and “leadership” is the description of the relationship between the leader and the community.  Burns described “progress” as a sort of projectile ricocheting back and forth, first off one rail and then off the other.  He quoted Gandhi, to the effect that Gandhi felt himself sometimes the leader of his community and sometimes the follower of his community.

Leadership is a description of the relationship that exists between the leader of the moment and the community.

It seems to me that, what follows from Burns argument is unsettling for all of us.  As a community, we cannot look to others “to lead” us.  There are occasions when each and every one of us – even the most humble — must be prepared to lead.  There are occasions when each and every one of us – even the most prominent – must be prepared to follow.  Whether as leaders or as followers, we must be discerning in the way we fulfill the role.  I would argue that we should not be studying “leadership”.  We should be studying “citizenship”, because citizenship embodies both leadership in the right moment and followership in the right moment.  I have been in schools where the custodian was the moral leader of the community, and rightly so.  I have been in the Cabinet room when the Premier deferred to the most junior Minister in the room, and rightly so.

The second argument Burns made about leadership was that we have experience with three kinds of leadership, and we should prefer/expect/demand one of the three instead of two others.

Burns described leadership as being:

1.     Transmissional – “I am paramount:  do as I say or you will be punished.” Or,

2.     Transactional – “Let’s make a deal:  do what I ask and I will do what you want.” – lobbying, and backroom exchanges without an enduring relationship.  Or,

3.     Transformational – “Let’s commit to an enduring relationship, and work together, and change ourselves, and improve our circumstances and the circumstances of our community.”

For Burns, and for me, transformational leadership is the highest rung we have yet attained.  And we don’t spend enough time on that high rung.

For all Albertans, particularly for those active in the Alberta Party and the Progressive Conservative Party, the challenge of the next few months (and years) will be to:

1.     avoid, discourage, and reduce the role of the paramount leader;

2.     seek leadership that is selfless and works off the leadership capacities of the entire party/province;

3.     create and maintain a party environment in which every party member is encouraged to develop and display imagination, self-discipline, moral courage, energy, a commitment to posterity;

4.     develop a strong sense, within the party as a whole, of shared responsibility for leadership; and,

5.     develop a strong sense, within the party as a whole, of servant leadership for the province.

The citizen who is truly loyal to the community will not submit to, or advise, or condone arbitrary, or unjust, or mediocre measures. (paraphrasing an ancient Roman)  The citizen who is truly loyal to the community will sometimes lead, and sometimes follow, and rarely accept a paramount leader.