James MacGregor Burns, for most of his life, has been known for his writings on transformational, transactional, and visionary leadership through his biographies of notable presidents. Burns even won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, making him an accepted expert on American leadership during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He also believes strongly that leaders, especially visionary leaders, are the cornerstone to change, as evidenced by his strong support of repealing the American constitutional amendment to limit terms of office. For this reason, when reading Burns’ theories, we must take into consideration the extreme importance he places on the singular individual in the sea of complexity. Burns’ model of multidimensionality in the follower-leader spectrum is a fascinating study of the various layers that exist in change agency, particularly those of systematic change.
Burns’ model of multidimensionality centers around the central conflict between two parties: the opposers and the innovators. Between the two parties lies the inheritors, or people who stand for the status quo. Innovators introduce radical change to the status quo, while opposers introduce gradual reform. Outside agents known as partners then mobilize opposers and innovators into smaller organizations known as coalition builders, who go in one of three different directions: as supporting agents of opposers or innovators, or into break-away factions known as splitters, moving in a different direction than either opposers or innovators. Sometimes splitters will return to the inheritors, but most of the time they form nonfunctional organizations that end up moving into passivity.
In addition to this already complex array of ideological individual groups, a group known as the passives sit outside the action, watching, observing, and only taking action in the form of inaction and only from operative incentive from coalition builders. Some of these passives move further away and form isolates, passives who want to take stronger action and become short-term followers of the coalition builders, but in the end are too separated from the process to make any significant difference and end up being alienated from the core group.
Traditional theories of the follower-leader dichotomy generally focus on a single follower and a single leader, whereas Burns’ model displays a huge array of various kinds of followers with differing incentives for action. He stresses that situation (context) and agency (leadership capabilities) are important in distinguishing the level of strength for each of the inheritor sub-groups; situation and agency must constantly be evaluated, and the sub-groups can drastically change if the context shifts or leadership changes hands.
Burns’ model focuses primarily on visionary leaders such as Roosevelt, Kennedy, and the nature of the US presidency as examples and warnings for models of transformational leadership. His positive models, however, are dictatorial, singular, and heroic, extremely strong in trait-based leadership. For this reason, I question whether Burns’ model of transformational leadership can be applicable in today’s late modern world, where traits such as servanthood, collaboration, role-based leadership, and the learning organization are a focus of many businesses, and the heroic qualities of the 20th century contain too little accountability, both legally and financially, to be acceptable models today.
Abstract models are tricky, because they can be misinterpreted and misused without context. Burns uses the example of F.D.R.’s presidency to explain multidimensionality. In my own experience, multidimensionality exists although because the contexts I operate in are different and the leader is different, the way I interpret sub-groups of the inheritors is going to be altered. For example, in my university the inheritors are the older teachers, enmeshed in more traditional methods of teaching. The innovators are more like the isolates, as they are not respected by the traditional authority or given power to make changes, while the vast majority are opposers (who seek gradual reform, by referring to the status quo and moving towards the outside innovators but not recognizing they are moving in that direction). Splitters are generally composed of innovators who have not been accepted by the inheritors or opposers, and the true people who have power in my situation are the partners. They have the most power because they control the flow of information from the innovators to the opposers, and finally directly into the belly of the beast: the inheritors.
In my situation in China, the dichotomy between leader and follow is still just as complex, but the rules are different. Multidimensionality exists, and for the leader in China it is terrifying. The rules are constantly changing, and leaders not only have to have a strong sense of where the various coalition builders are, but have to be keenly aware of the partners behind the scenes. In that way, leaders are not leaders as we know of in the west (as instigators of change) but more as moderators of various groups as they charge into the future, trimming the branches here and there to make way for the power of the partners as they, over-time, transform into the inheritors.