News & Views from 465 California Street


Clint Reilly

During the 2007/08 presidential season Chris Matthews, the touted MSNBC commentator, will utter the Leadership word ad nauseam. In fact, I heard Matthews ask all of the following questions on his Sunday August 26 show. Is Barack Obama too young to provide leadership? Are American men ready to accept leadership from Hillary Clinton? Is Rudy Giuliani’s 9/11 leadership enough to elect him President? Is John McCain too old to provide energetic leadership? Will other religions reject leadership from a practicing Mormon – Mitt Romney? Leadership is a much abused word.

Politicians in today’s 24/7 news cycle are not the only spin doctors. The constant repetition of political clichés by reporters and journalists trivializes the meaning of important words and concepts critical to our democracy and numbs the body politic like a narcotic.

For instance, let’s go beyond Matthews’s banalities and take a deeper look at leadership.

James Macgregor Burns’s famous book titled Leadership, published in 1974, remains the definitive study of political leadership. A long treatise with many important lessons, the key point of MacGregor Burns’s book is that there are two kinds of leadership: transactional leadership and transformational leadership. “The relationship between most leaders and followers is transactional”, wrote MacGregor Burns. “Leaders approach followers with an eye to exchanging one thing for another: jobs for votes, or subsidies for campaign contributions. Such transactions comprise the bulk of relationships among leaders and followers, especially in groups, legislatures and parties.” Here we recognize all of the candidates for President as transactional leaders as well as 99% of the best and worst elected officials in the nation.

Transformational leadership is rare. MacGregor Burns defines the highest form of leadership as a moral imperative. He writes, “Such 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. Transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.” James MacGregor Burns cites Gandhi as a transforming leader.

The glib questions of Chris Matthews ignore the irony that, by James MacGregor Burns’s definition, none of the present candidates for President are transformational leaders.

Nevertheless, effective power wielders who successfully mediate between groups and solve societal problems are indispensable to our democracy. We need problem solvers like Senator Dianne Feinstein, Attorney General Jerry Brown, Senate Leader Don Perata, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Congressman George Miller to make California and America work and to improve the lives of average citizens. And we certainly need to elect a competent transactional leader for President.

Polls show chronic dissatisfaction among voters with America’s political leaders and government institutions. People want transformational change, but at best get only incremental change brokered by transactional leaders.

The true transformational leaders today can be found outside government. And often they are organizations not individuals. In his new book Blessed Unrest, the pioneer environmentalist Paul Hawken describes literally millions of volunteer citizen organizations around the world dedicated to improving life on the planet. Hawken writes, “I now believe there are one million – perhaps as many as two million – organizations working toward economic sustainability and social justice. This movement, however, does not fit the standard model. It has no manifesto or doctrine. It is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, deserts, villages, and companies. One of its distinctive features is that it is emerging as a global humanitarian movement.”

There are now hundreds of millions of volunteers across the world pressuring political leaders for transformational change. The transactional leaders in power ignore them at their peril.

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