James MacGregor Burns

James MacGregor Burns (August 3, 1918 in Melrose, MA – July 15, 2014 in Williamstown, MA)[4] 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[5] and the National Book Award in History and Biography[6] for his work on America's 32nd president, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom.[7]

James MacGregor Burns
Born(1918-08-03)August 3, 1918
DiedJuly 15, 2014(2014-07-15) (aged 95)
Alma mater
EmployerWilliams College (1947–1986)
Political partyliberal Democrat
Opponent(s)Silvio Conte in 1958
  • Janet Thompson (May 1942-div.)
  • Joan Simpson Meyers (1968–1990)
Partner(s)Susan Dunn
ChildrenDavid (deceased), Stewart, Deborah, and Mecca Antonia
Stepchildren: Trienah Anne Meyers, Peter Alexander Meyers
  • Robert A. Burns (father)
  • Mildred Bunce Burns (mother)
AwardsPulitzer Prize, 1971
James MacGregor Burns
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branchU.S. Army
Years of service?-1945
RankEnlisted man
UnitCombat historian
Battles/warsWorld War II, Pacific War, Battle of Saipan
AwardsBronze Star

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.[8] He was best known for his contributions to the transactional, transformational, aspirational, and visionary schools of leadership theory.


Military serviceEdit

After graduating from Williams, Burns spent a year as an intern in Washington for Utah Congressman Abe Murdock.[9] He spent a year at Harvard, then six months in Colorado working for the War Labor Board.[3]

Burns was drafted to serve in the Pacific theater as an enlisted U.S. Army combat historian,[3] 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.[2]

In 1947 he briefly worked for the Hoover Commission, reviewing the operations of the Commerce Department's National Maritime Office.

Academic careerEdit

Burns joined the faculty of Williams College in 1947, and taught there for nearly 40 years, retiring in 1986.[1] A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he served as 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 named for him.[10] 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.[11]

His students included Georgia Jones Sorenson and Michael Beschloss.

Political careerEdit

A liberal, in 1958 Burns was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee in Massachusetts's 1st congressional district, meeting then-U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and helping him gain Protestant support to get re-elected, while Kennedy helped him gain Catholic support. Burns gained personal access that allowed him to write his biography of Kennedy, published in 1960, which calls JFK "casual as a cash register," "quiet, taut, efficient—sometimes, perhaps, even dull," and generally too cerebral and lacking in heart. This angered Kennedy's wife Jackie, who said Burns "underestimated" him.[4] Burns was eventually elected a delegate to four Democratic National Conventions.


Professor Burns styled himself a Congregationalist.[3] He and his first wife had four children, three of who survived him. In 1964, he met Joan Simpson Meyers, daughter of renowned paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, in New York City when she interviewed him for her best-selling book about President John Fitzgerald Kennedy; four years later Burns and Meyers were married at High Mowing, the family home in Williamstown, where they lived together for the next quarter century. At the end of his life, he was friends with his first wife, but lived with his collaborator and longtime companion, Professor Susan Dunn.[1]

Burns died in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on July 15, 2014, at 95, after publishing more than 20 books.[1]

Views on governmentEdit

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 term limits for Supreme Court justices, an end to midterm 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 leadershipEdit

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;[12] 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.


  • Congress on Trial: The Legislative Process and the Administrative State (Harper, 1949).[16]
  • Government by the People (textbook) (1952 (20th ed. 2003), (Prentice-Hall).[17]
  • Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (Harcourt, Brace, 1956).[18]
  • John Kennedy: A Political Profile (Harcourt, Brace, 1960).[19]
  • The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America (Prentice Hall, 1963).[20]
  • Government by the People: The Dynamics of American National Government (1963).[21]
  • Presidential Government: The Crucible of Leadership (Houghton-Mifflin, 1965).[22]
  • Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970) (1971 Pulitzer Prize for History).(ISBN 978-0-15-602757-1).[23]
  • Uncommon Sense (1972).[24]
  • Edward Kennedy and the Camelot Legacy (1976).[25]
  • Leadership (Harper Collins, 1978) (ISBN 978-0-06-010588-4).[26]
  • The Vineyard of Liberty (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982) (ISBN 978-0-394-50546-6).[27]
  • The Power to Lead: The Crisis of the American Presidency (Touchstone Books, 1984).[28]
  • The Workshop of Democracy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985) (ISBN 978-0-394-50546-6).[29]
  • The Crosswinds of Freedom (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) (ISBN 978-0-394-51276-1).[30]
  • Cobblestone Leadership: Majority Rule, Minority Power (University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).[31]
  • A People's Charter: The Pursuit of Rights in America (with Stewart Burns) (Knopf, 1991).[32]
  • The Democrats Must Lead: The Case for a Progressive Democratic Party (with William Crotty) (1992).[33]
  • Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation (with Georgia Jones Sorenson) (1999).[34]
  • The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America, with Susan Dunn (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001) (ISBN 978-0-8021-3872-9).[35]
  • Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003) (ISBN 978-0-87113-866-8).[36]
  • George Washington (with Susan Dunn) (ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.) (Times Books, 2004).[37]
  • Encyclopedia of Leadership (with Georgia Jones Sorenson and George R. Goethals) (2004).[38]
  • Running Alone: Presidential Leadership — JFK to Bush II: Why It Has Failed and How We Can Fix It (Basic Books, 2006).[39]
  • Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court (Penguin Press, 2009) (ISBN 978-1-59420-219-3).[40]
  • Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World (St. Martin's Press, 2013) (ISBN 978-1-250-02489-3).[41]


  1. ^ a b c d Tony Dobrowolski (July 15, 2014). "James MacGregor Burns, historian and FDR biographer, dies at age 95". The Berkshire Eagle.
  2. ^ a b Weber, Bruce (July 15, 2014). "James MacGregor Burns, Scholar of Presidents and Leadership, Dies at 95". The New York Times.
  3. ^ a b c d Scarpino, Philip (June 24, 2009). "James MacGregor Burns Oral History Interview: Audio & Transcripts". Tobias Leadership Center: Indiana University. Retrieved July 8, 2018.
  4. ^ a b "James MacGregor Burns dies at 95". POLITICO.
  5. ^ "History". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  6. ^ "National Book Awards – 1971". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  7. ^ Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, 1940-45. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970
  8. ^ Burns, James MacGregor. Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.
  9. ^ Lamb, Brian (June 4, 1989). "James MacGregor Burns: The Crosswinds of Freedom". C-SPAN Booknotes. Retrieved July 8, 2018.
  10. ^ Matt Schudel (July 17, 2014). "Historian won Pulitzer for biography on FDR". The Baltimore Sun. p. 6.
  11. ^ "James MacGregor Burns Wins History Award | Roosevelt Institute". March 10, 2015. Archived from the original on March 10, 2015. Retrieved February 3, 2018.
  12. ^ a b "James MacGregor Burns, Scholar of Presidents and Leadership, Dies at 95". The New York Times. July 16, 2014.
  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. ^ "Sorenson, Georgia - SAGE Publications Inc".
  16. ^ "Congress on Trial, by James Macgregor Burns".
  17. ^ "Amazon.com: James MacGregor Burns: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle".
  18. ^ "Roosevelt: the lion and the fox".
  19. ^ "John Kennedy".
  20. ^ "The Deadlock of Democracy".
  21. ^ "Government By the People; the Dynamics of American National Government: J et al MacGregor Burns: Amazon.com: Books".
  22. ^ "Presidental[sic] Government".
  23. ^ "Roosevelt, the Soldier of Freedom".
  24. ^ "Uncommon sense".
  25. ^ "Edward Kennedy and the Camelot Legacy".
  26. ^ "Leadership".
  27. ^ "The Vineyard of Liberty".
  28. ^ "Power to Lead".
  29. ^ "The Workshop of Democracy - Books on Google Play".
  30. ^ "The Crosswinds of Freedom".
  31. ^ "Cobblestone Leadership: Majority Rule, Minority Power (Julian J Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture Series): James MacGregor Burns: 9780806123141: Amazon.com: Books".
  32. ^ "A People's Charter: The Pursuit of Rights in America: James MacGregor Burns, Stewart Burns: 9780394577630: Amazon.com: Books".
  33. ^ "The Democrats Must Lead: The Case for a Progressive Democratic Party".
  34. ^ "Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation: James Macgregor Burns, Georgia Jones Sorenson: 9780684837789: Amazon.com: Books".
  35. ^ "The Three Roosevelts".
  36. ^ "Transforming Leadership".
  37. ^ "Amazon.com: George Washington (The American Presidents Series) (9780805069365): James MacGregor Burns, Susan Dunn, Arthur M. Schlesinger: Books".
  38. ^ "Encyclopedia of Leadership 4 vol. set: George R. (EDT)/ Sorenson, Georgia Jones (EDT)/ Burns, James MacGregor (EDT) Goethals: 9780761925972: Amazon.com: Books".
  39. ^ "Running Alone".
  40. ^ "Packing the Court".
  41. ^ "Fire and Light".

External linksEdit