James McGregor Burns: Transformational leadership

James McGregor Burns - Transformational leadership


James McGregor Burns’ theory on transformational leadership is based on ethics and ethical practices. Here the leader ‘walks the walk’ and sets examples by his deeds and actions. A transformational leader leads through moral practices and creates an atmosphere of transformation among each and every team member. Burns, in his theory focuses on human values while assuming power. He or she motivates team members by leading from the front and setting example in every step. We will learn more about this theory in this article.

About the Theory

This theory on transformational leadership is people-centric wherein, team members look up to their leader and try to imbibe his or her motivational and working habits. This theory has great similarity to Plato’s Republic where the leader is more of a philosopher like Gautam Buddha, Jesus Christ or Mahatma Gandhi. These leaders are capable of creating a sense of truthfulness through their actions and teachings. They are successful in guiding team members through value creation, goal setting and developing capabilities. According to this school of thought, these values are already within team members and are only required to be kindled. A transformational leader just shows the path to invoke these human qualities.

Burns’ transformational theory on leadership in based in two aspects.

  1. Attaining leadership and thereafter maintaining it
  2. Ways of attaining leadership

The theory attempts to answer the question as to why anyone should want to become a leader. This theory is regarded as an exception as it goes against the doctrine of ‘might is right’ for a leader. Often referred to as ‘transaction theory’, it dates back to Plato’s time when rhetorical theorist Thrasymachus propounded this theory. Later on, Socrates argued that humanity is a more superior quality which ignores the aspect of ‘might’ as the criterion of power. According to Socrates, the purpose of humanity is not just to exist but to achieve something more worthwhile, which is ‘wisdom’. It is because of this distinction that humans are the most superior species of the planet.

James Burns’ Definition of ‘Leadership’

According to Burns, leadership is circumstantial. Its function is to engage followers and not just activate them. Leadership is a process to interlink the needs and aspirations of an individual to those of common objectives thereby creating better citizens of leaders and followers. It is not just a description of somebody who is in charge, and its concept goes much beyond managing a team or achieving political objectives.

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Burns was critical about modern day definition of leadership which is just a technique in politics and management and ‘divorced from ethics’. Burns continued defining leadership as power ruled by principle and that which raised individuals to their highest levels of morality and personal aspirations. He categorically distinguished between leadership and power. Leadership mobilizes people while power only manages them; leadership engages while power impacts; leadership is creative as against power which is corruptive.

Burns’ ‘Circumstantial leadership’

James Burns cites three circumstances that create leaders. Circumstances vary in nature and degrees.

  1. There are times when it becomes necessary to mobilize people for realizing goals that are common to both a leader and followers. In order to realize this objective, it could be necessary to arouse and engage people institutionally, psychologically and politically for achieving this objective. For this type of leadership to materialize the objectives of both leaders and followers must be the same. Under such a circumstance, a leader and follower are one another’s complement. One motivates the other in achieving team’s goal. A very high level of morality is observed in this form of circumstantial leadership.
  2. Second form of circumstantial leadership stems from ‘followship’. Burns as a combatant of the US Army during World War II discovered that leadership was found among the ordinary soldiers. These soldiers fought more effectively in the absence of their commanders underlining the trust within themselves. Assuming the role of a leader in the time of need is another class of ‘circumstantial’ leadership.
  3. Circumstantial leadership also emanates from need assessment. Needs of humans begin from physiological or basic needs and goes up to self actualization needs. The better the need assessment of followers, the greater are the chances of meeting them. A capable circumstantial leader has total clarity about these different needs of team members and is able to offer situations that satisfy these needs.

The Positives

Transformational leadership theory of James Burns being based on social values aims at improving the intrinsic leader-follower relationship. It aims at enhancing the morality of a team and its members. Unlike other theories, Burn’s theory attempts at establishing a high moral character for a leader and its followers.

The qualities of leaders are well-explained in this theory. In Burns theory, the goal of leadership is thoroughly explained unlike in other theories where it is only an idea. Leadership in other theories is only a management process and no way is connected to setting moral values for a society. On the contrary, Burns correlates leadership with a societal process where both leader and followers are motivated for a noble purpose.

This theory is transcendental in scope. It is not a micro-process involving an organization on production unit, but a macro phenomenon that is concerned with overall transformation in lifestyle processes and activities. Burns’ Transformational leadership if followed correctly is capable of confronting major issues like economic collapse, global warming, or overpopulation.


Burns theory is idealistic in terms of modern generation marketing economics and management processes. It aims to bring about a comprehensive change for a society which is mostly concerned with short term gains. It fails to inspire managers and management processes that are concerned with only productivity and profitability. Burns’ theory in all probabilities should be coupled with a co-relational motivational theorem.


Burns’ theory has a distinct social aspect and needs an audience that is already motivated for higher objectives. Further the essence of the theory is too difficult for an average manager or leader to understand. A serious drawback of this theory is its inability to cope with an emergency. Transformational leadership theory needs time and space for its actual fructification.



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