In Focus: Leadership

In what still is for many the definitive book on leadership, James MacGregor Burns wrote that the classic role of the great leader is “to comprehend not only the existing needs of followers but to mobilize within them newer motivations and aspirations…” In the book, simply titled Leadership, the great American historian went on to describe this type of leadership as transforming leadership.

Transformational leadership remains for many the preferred model or typology of leadership. What better example is there of such leadership, at least in the early dawn of the 21st century, than Barack Obama? But, as many believe, what better example is there of the power of a leader to “mobilize motivations and aspirations” and the ensuing hissing sound of disappointment, as the air leaks out of those inflated motivations and aspirations?

In recent months, “No you can’t” has become a kind of double entendre. Yes, it does mean that a leader can’t offer a solution. But it has also become a battle cry, where people – whether they’re in the U.S. Congress or the trenches of Occupy movements around the world — rise up to tell their leaders “No you can’t” pass this legislation or “No you can’t” ignore our pleas any longer.

To be sure, Barack Obama is not the only leader who has stumbled. Across the EU, leaders who saw the gathering momentum of unmanageable debt and default as clearly as though they were on an LCD screen still fiddle to find a solution. Even the vaunted rating agencies, once thought infallible, failed to correctly gauge the implosion of Greece and its domino-like impact. Never, it seems, have so many leaders, once potent or at least promising become so feckless and simply wrong.

To be sure, being a leader has never been more difficult. Complexity, interconnectedness and volatility have rendered what was once manageable mostly unmanageable. Doubt tyrannizes once supremely confident leaders. For not too much longer, we hope – and believe.


Stephen Bernhut