Leadership – a reminder…

A pertinent and not often quoted piece from James McGregor Burns (1978):

Can leadership be taught?

…We have conceived of leadership in these pages as the tapping of existing and potential motive and power bases of followers by leaders, for the purpose of achieving intended change.  We conceive of education in essentially the same terms.  So viewed, education is not merely the shaping of values, the imparting of “facts” or the teaching of skills, indispensable though these are; it is the total teaching and learning process operating in homes, schools, gangs, temples, churches, garages, streets, armies, corporations, bars, and unions, conducted by both teachers and learners, engaging with the total environment and involving influence over persons’ selves and their opportunities and destinies, not simply their minds.

Persons are taught by shared experiences and interacting motivations within identifiable physical, psychological, and socio-political environments.  Ultimately, education and leadership shade into each other to become almost inseparable, but only when both are defined as the reciprocal raising of levels of motivation rather than indoctrination or coercion.

The emergence of increased attention to student diversity in the current age reconnects us to the complex development of leadership that Burn’s describes.  Education under these terms is consistent with the pleas of Stiggins, Kohn, and Pink when we look at understanding what truly motivates and how our institutionalized approaches undermine our desired state.  Burns, like the others, has called behaviorist theory into question yet again, when considering the more complex functions of how we interact in complex relationships.

Do we need basic skills?  Yes, of course.

Must we eliminate the nuances of relationship and intrinsic motivation by adhering to aging pedagogy? I hope not.

For me, individual excellence is enhanced by understanding the complexity of relationships and by reducing the degree to which we standardize our approaches.  Is there anyone in the world that really wants just a “standard” education?  Wouldn’t we all really like an “excellent” education?


Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.