Monday, April 15, 2024

Burns - transactional to transformational leadership

James MacGregor Burns (1918-2014) is a US historians and specialist in leadership at Williams College. His work is foundational in leadership, as he established leadership as transformational not transactional. This shaped the trajectory of leadership theory for much of the 20th century. As an academic he wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on Franklin D. Roosevelt. Influenced by Roosevelt and others he saw leadership as a moral issue, the aim being to transform followers through motivation.

Transformational leadership 

Burns is best known for introducing the concept of ‘transformational’ leadership in his book, Leadership (1978). He contrasted this with ‘transactional’ leadership, which was the dominant traditional model, where managers dealt with employees on a functional transactional level. Transformational Leaders engage with followers in such a way that they motivate and instill values. They set goals to inspire people, to change expectations, perceptions, and motivations. Transactional Leaders deal with people on a more mundane level, telling people what to do, with processes based on rewards for performance or discipline for failing to meet goals.

Burns was deeply interested in the role of leadership in the political process and was a keen observer of political leaders. His political inclinations and values—towards progressive change and the importance of leaders who could rise above mere transactional exchanges to truly transform society, are reflected in his work. He believed in the potential for leaders to be agents of change who could elevate the interests and moral standing of both followers and the broader society. 

Burns had a particular interest in Roosevelt and wrote a definitive two-volume biography. He identified transformational leadership in Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II but also studied Churchill, Ghandi and Hitler. His analysis was not limited, therefore, to positive examples of leadership; he also explored leaders who had a destructive or divisive impact to understand the full spectrum of leadership influence. Through his extensive studies, he aimed to uncover the universal traits and behaviors that could be used to inform and improve the practice of leadership across all sectors of society.

He placed a strong emphasis on the ethical and moral dimensions of leadership, believing that true leadership must be grounded in a commitment to justice and the betterment of society as a whole.


While his initial focus was on political leadership, his theories have been applied extensively in business, not-for--profit, and other organisational contexts. In Leadership, he viewed leadership largely through the lens of political interactions, emphasising the dynamics between leaders and followers in a political context, that context was societal and political change. In that sense his theory has been seen as elitist and fits transformation by manipulation and the abuse of power. This political focus is seen by some as a limitation, as corporations and public sector bodies are very different. 

His theories have also struck some as too idealistic and utopian, ignoring the complexities of different types of organisations and the distinction between transactional and transformational is not always clear. Given the very different times in which he wrote, there is little on the transformational role of technology, either in organisations or training.


Burns saw leadership as something that lifts both leaders and others in a rising tide. This shift from functional transactional leadership to a theory of leadership that has more psychological and motivational dimensions has been a key feature of most subsequent theories of leadership.


Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. Harper & Row. Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness Burns, J. M. (1956). Roosevelt: the lion and the fox. Harcourt, Brace. Burns, J. M. (1970). Roosevelt, the Soldier of Freedom. Konecky & Konecky

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