What makes a great leader? Author: The scholar seeks to understand the qualities that, so far in American history, have emerged only in crises.

Catching Up With ...

November 23, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- About 20 years ago, James MacGregor Burns, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote a book titled "Leadership." Not long ago, he decided to write another on the same subject.

He hopes the second one will say more than the first, but doesn't seem entirely confident about that.

"It's the hardest thing to do," he says. "It's daunting."

An uncountable number of books have been written over the years about leadership. Many attempt to be inspirational. Most are biographies of leaders, dead and alive. They are praised or condemned. Their motives are analyzed, their histories narrated, their intimate lives, their actions and policies dissected.

People know what leaders do: They lead, seize the initiative, "grasp the nettle." Everybody has an opinion about the qualities necessary to a leader: He, or she, must be "devious," or "ruthless," have vision, a sense of drama and destiny. Everybody knows how leaders learn leadership: by leading.

The most famous treatment of the subject is "The Prince," by the 15th-century Florentine diplomat, Niccolo Machiavelli. But "The Prince" is more of a how-to book for a Renaissance ruler than an illuminating description of the phenomenon of leadership, where springs from, what it is.

That's what Burns is after, a true understanding of it. He has spent much of his long and distinguished career in pursuit of that goal, without ultimate success -- so far. This is not to say he has failed -- rather that leadership remains not fully understood, not fully explained.

Thus the need for the second book.

Burns, a patrician New Englander (born in Melrose, Mass., in 1918) who has spent the last few years as the University of Maryland's scholar in residence, has wrestled with many of these kinds of elusive notions before. He has been an adviser to three presidents (John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter), and has written extensively on the presidency. He is a historian by training.

In addition to the Pulitzer for "Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom," Burns also won the National Book Award. Right now he is working on a book on President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, and for the time being has put aside his second treatise on leadership, as well as a planned work on three Roosevelts -- Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor.

It could be that Burns' difficulties -- the reason he feels two books on the same subject are necessary -- stem from the inadequacy of language. There are many slippery concepts. Liberty and equality, to name two. These are ideas Burns is convinced most Americans believe in -- but not necessarily unconditionally.

American attitudes

"Americans overwhelmingly approve of equality of opportunity," says Burns. "I don't think many Americans believe in equality of conditions. They believe with Herbert Hoover, that everyone should start at the same starting line. Like in a land rush."

"But," he adds, "this begs the question of what happens before you get to the starting line."

That's where commitment to the idea of equality begins to weaken. People are not born with equal talent or into equivalent circumstances. So how can equality of opportunity be arranged? Maybe it can't be. Maybe it shouldn't be; maybe efforts to bring it about only impose an inequality of a different sort.

The current argument over affirmative action turns on questions such as these. It is why the understanding of equality becomes more and more elusive with deeper analysis, much as the understanding of leadership does.

Burns' efforts to formulate a theory of leadership, though not completely successful, have not gone unrewarded. And the rewards that have come to him have been concrete, the honors lavish.

Earlier this month, the University of Maryland threw an extravagant party (with AT&T's support) at the Library of Congress to celebrate the inauguration of the James MacGregor Burns Leadership Academy at College Park.

The academy's purpose: to foster "responsible and ethical leadership through education, service, and scholarship in the public interest," among other things.

The academy will draw scholars and students to the study of history, science, sociology, psychology -- all the disciplines that help illuminate the idea of leadership. It won't teach the time-tested techniques that leaders use. That's done elsewhere, at West Point for soldiers and MIT for scientists and engineers.

"You can teach leadership in specific situations," Burns says. "As an old Army man [he was a combat historian in the Pacific during World War II, and won a Bronze Star] I could step out and lead an infantry platoon. Lead them." But this is one of the "little leaderships," as he puts it. Burns wants to understand the "big leadership," the possibly unteachable "leadership that cuts across all these fields." His descriptive word for this is "transforming" leadership.

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