Free Newsletter
Stay Informed and Grow your Leadership!

Enter Your E-mail Address
Enter Your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you NewsLetter.

Burns Transformational Leadership Theory

Technical Details

Name(s): Burns Transformational Leadership Theory
Author: James MacGregor Burns
Classification: Transformational Leadership Theories
Year: 1978


  • Burns Transformational Leadership Theory appeals to the "high road" in developing social values and individual purpose. It is one of, if not the only one with a coherent philosophy underpinning the nature of leadership.
  • The Theory set apart from the rest of the leadership theories and asks the most fundamental question of what the ultimate goal of leadership is and why one should be a leader.
  • Not only is Burns Transformational Leadership Theory transcendent in overall scope, but it may be what is necessary if the human species is counting on saving itself from the numerous potential disasters it faces, such as overpopulation, global warming, and systemic economic collapse.


  • Burns Transformational Leadership Theory is idealistic and may not be applicable to populations not wanting or able to go beyond just living as they do and maintaining their own status quo. In this case, Burns Transformational Leadership Theory must be coupled with a motivational theory, as well as preparing them emotionally and intellectually.
  • Burns Transformational Leadership Theory may not work in emergency situations or situations in which tasks are enormously complex and beyond the skill level of the average group member.
  • A major issue with Burns Transformational Leadership Theory, is how a transformational leader is to deal with other leaders not so enlightened.


Burns Transformational leadership Theory, in other words, Burns focuses upon motivations and values in assessing how a leader approaches power. This aspect of having that basic ethical system sets leaders apart from those merely aspiring to power. The first, where ethics is first, are people-centric and that latter are ego centric. Gandhi and Castro would be the ones leading through morality and be transformational, while Hitler and Stalin would represent the ego and be transactional. A transforming leadership is superseded by a transcendent leadership, where the whole leadership process completely changes the character of an individual from being a mere leader to one with a noble ethos, and that leader, accordingly brings the led up into the same atmosphere. One may liken this process to that in Plato's Republic with the philosopher queen/king , Gandhi, Buddha, or Christ. The people are led from the world of shadows and illusion to out in the sunlight where truth presents itself in its own light. Hence, we have an evolution from the most primitive, transactional, or bargaining, leadership, to transformational leadership, and finally to transcendent leadership. The leader guides people with the existing values, goals, capabilities and other resources the followers have through these stages of development. In the transcended individual, values are not simply the underpinning of motives, but the values are internalized and are a part of the person.


So many theories on leadership focus on two basic aspects: the goal of attaining and maintaining the status of a leader, and the mechanics of doing so. Little, if any attention is paid to the reasons why or the ultimate reason why anyone would ever want to become a leader, Burns Transformational Leadership Theory is of course an exception. The problem stems as far back (and probably further) to the time of Plato 2500 years ago, when Thrasymachus, a rhetorical theorist and Chalcedonian sophist, stated that "might makes right". Leaders who could assert dominion by force were right in doing so, one method being be called today "Transaction Theory". Socrates, argued that there is something higher, that humanity isn't here on this planet simply to exist but to do the best that s/he is capable, seek wisdom. This sets the human species apart from the rest.

James MacGregor Burns (1918) is a presidential biographer and asserted in his book Leadership that leadership happens in three circumstances:

  • 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. [1]
  • Burns was a combatant in World War II and realized that when people talked of leadership they emphasized the qualities of the officers but rarely paid attention to the soldiers. However, he saw that the most effective fighting units were those where, in the absence of the officers, leadership was found within the ranks. Historians exaggerate the roles of officers and ignore that within the led . "Leadership is followship, and followship is leadership", and leaders are created from the followers [2]. Transformational and transforming are different. Leadership should be about mobilization and developing leaders. Transformational and transactional leadership are different. As an example, Burns refers to Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) as both a fox and a lion, a fox with respect to deceiving people in accomplishing critical objective and a lion in being able to gain a personal following FDR did not develop organized support from the Democratic Party but neglected it, leaving it disrupted in 1945. Transactional leadership consists of brokerage, where parties work out differences Transformational leadership is conflict driven, where leaders have to make enemies in order to show that change has occurred. Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to demonstrate this with the programs such as social security [3].

    Leaders pilot people by assessing their needs, as in Maslow's scale and Kohlberg's moral stages. Abraham Maslow postulated a scale of values that people have ranging from physiological needs (the most basic) to self actualization (the most complex) that includes creativity, ethics, and personal development [4]. Lawrence Kohlberg set forth , taking after Jean Piaget's stages of childhood growth, six successive stages of moral growth that fell into three groups: preconventional morality, conventional morality, and post conventional morality. The standards by which growth is measured center on the development of a good society that is democratic and just [5].

    Burns' hierarchy of values has "public values" at the top. With respect to the U.S., while there is no particular form to American values - just a collection of various ones, there is drawn from the Western philosophy of enlightenment the basic values of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. These were championed by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The order is correct. Life is first, followed by liberty that circumscribes the type of life to be led. Both of these are needed to attain happiness . Equality is essential to pursuit of happiness. Each of these values modifies the other, as in life being modified by liberty. Equality then is after liberty. Underpinning this hierarchy are basic public ethical values. Private values have the least historical impact [6].


    Plato and Aristotle said that a participatory society, democracy being one form, could exist successfully only if the electorate was educated and there was a strong middle class. The electorate also had to participate. They had to be virtuous, doing the best that their capabilities allowed them. Burns idealizes a situation in which a leader can act to elevate the following to a high level. The assumption is that people are capable of being elevated and they want to aspire to better behavior and act accordingly. There is an inherent folly in thinking that the masses are wise, empirically simply by looking at the average educational levels. Only a fifth of the population has a Bachelor's degree, and it can be questioned, especially given the quality of the curriculum, whether in this age of technological complexity and international interdependence and need for a knowledge and understanding or social processes, whether that level is sufficient [7]. More often than not, they are ignorant and fickle [8]. Both Plato and Aristotle said that a philosopher had to have a quiet and contemplative life. The vast majority of the world is living on the edge, attempting to meet daily needs. Surely, they are not living that required quiet and contemplative environment where they can get educated and think about deep issues. A destructively competitive environment exists worldwide, brought about by economic elites whose sole aim in life is the accumulation of wealth and exertion of power.

    Of course, there have been great transformations of persons and events have been transformations, but many, if not most situations have slid back down into what can be called "social entropy" because the educated and strong middle class has not been there. This is not to say that Transformational Leadership should not be at the forefront of leadership techniques, but there must be a realization that there are limitations. The leader must assess the nature of the population and determine whether to apply Transformational Leadership and to what degree. Certainly, in the manner of an educator wanting to better the world and elevate the level in knowledge and understanding in everyone, the ideal should be ever present. However, there may be degrees of such a method, and there always must be the push to transform. On the other hand, the leader should assess what limits exist in doing so and against other factors such as the enormity and urgency of the task. It has been the case that throughout history that tyrants fall, but chaos ensues with plenty of misery to go around. This viscous cycle will continue until a collective will is developed, perhaps through Transcendental Leadership, or the physical environment will not sustain the process because of war, environmental degradation, or overpopulation.

    Future of theory

    Always there needs to be the ideal of making society better by the development of its members. Indeed, this is the function of education. So, in the same manner that we do not dispense with education because of the magnitude of the problem of transforming "the masses", one cannot dispense with Transcendent Leadership as an ideal, and certainly not Transformational Leadership. The question is how to proceed. The population must be motivated, and there is nothing that breeds success like success, and this means living by example and showing that leading a virtuous life is positive for humanity. Above all, they must value education and thinking about higher things like why they are on this planet, the meaning of life, and how to make life better for everyone, instead of simply oneself. This means philosophy, with attention paid to values. On the obverse side, perpetuating the ethos of greed, consumerism, narcissism, destructive competition, and outright hedonism has deleterious consequences, as can be seen by global warming, overpopulation, pernicious ideologies and religions, perpetual wars, collapsed economies, unemployment, tyranny, and widespread ignorance. This discussion was had 2500 years ago, and one wonders, as various clocks tick away on the various factors, whether humanity will awake in time to save itself. Burns' call for instilling a higher ethos in leadership extends from the highest and most powerful of the world's leaders down to the individual, who needs to be a leader of her or himself. Perhaps the Greeks did have that quintessential lesson about virtue, that there are innate differences in humanity, and that each person must not only recognize her or his limitations but strive to be the best at which s/he is capable.

    A sign of a theory's validity is its predictive value, and so far, what both Aristotle and Plato stated about the future of various forms of government has been rather accurate. We as a species still have not absorbed and applied that lesson very effectively, and we are at a crossroads with the ability of advanced technologies to effect monstrous changes simply with a flick by a temperamental finger on an all too easily manipulable switch. Are we to be fatalistic in accepting the dire predictions of Frank Venner, James Lovelock, Carl Sagan, Martin Rees, Stephen Hawking, among others [9] that there is not much hope for humanity, given the record of human performance, or are we as a species going to look to people like Burns and see that there should be an ethos higher than the one driving current humanity?

    Want to expand on the discussion?

    We encourage you to expand on the discussion, add to the critique or even share your vision with regards to the future applications of the theory.

    Other Visitors thoughts

    Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page...

    great article you have one part you may choose to change 
    You say in your article that "...Socrates, student of Plato, argued...", Plato was actually the student of Socrates. Plato uses Socrates as a character …

    Educating the Masses Not rated yet
    Regarding elevating/educating the ignorant masses I would argue that some pockets of the society where I live are experiencing a phenomenon that dimly …

    Define Transformational Leadership Not rated yet
    Can you defined transformational leadership; not using it antecedence or outcomes in that definition. Can we say the eyes have it ,i.e. the 4 I or are …

    Cultured leaders Not rated yet
    The Burns model is interesting as it firstly elevates values as intrinsic to leadership and then implies a Darwinian model of leadership development with …

    Click here to write your own.

    New! Comments

    Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

    Protected by Copyscape Web Plagiarism Check

    Stay Informed!!
    Get our Newsletter.




    Your e-mail address is totally secure.
    See our Privacy Policy