Top critical review
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Interesting Topic, not well Executed
on December 31, 2013
Leadership is a secondary source history/political science book drawing on historical examples, psychology, and some philosophical concepts on governance. Burns goal with the book is to establish a foundation for the study of leadership, combining the studies of the leaders themselves and the followers. It covers the individual traits of leaders, their relationship to followers, and how they managed to accomplish great things or have such great impact.
This textbook has a number of stylistic problems that make it difficult to read, despite its interesting substance. Its organization is shaky and many of the chapters and sections have no clear intro or conclusion to tie his thesis together. The book is a dry, boring read that meanders between secondary sources, historical anecdotes, and the author's own biased perceptions.
Burns seems to be trying to place a lateral beam across several pillars with his leadership school. This isn't nearly as groundbreaking as the blurbs on the back of the book claim. Burns' conclusions are limited in scope, and don't leave a strong impression on the reader.
He overuses Sigmund Freud, conceding that psychoanalysis of historical figures is not particularly accurate or helpful, then goes forward and uses it anyway. He identifies few patterns, constantly going back to the same old "blame the parents" approach to psychoanalysis. His occasional delving into the sexual habits of famous leaders was purely conjecture and not worthy of this text.
Burns narration of historical events and the rise of certain leaders is mediocre. It isn't heavy on detail, yet the prose is still difficult to follow. The historical examples do not clearly demonstrate his thesis. He provides limit context, assuming the reader is fully apprised of the historical events. This is arrogant and lazy. I can only assume the book is meant for a graduate-level audience who have strong backgrounds in history and political science. It certainly wasn't marketed this way (Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award).
Burns take on Mao Zedong was troubling to me. In Mao's case, his leadership ended when he took power at which point he became a tyrant. By Burns own admission, a tyranny is not leadership. He speaks glowingly of these revolutions despite the bloodshed, poverty, misery, and war it brought to the respective countries. His positive view of the Cultural Revolution in China is absolutely stunning, ignoring its atrocities and utter failure.
The book was published in 1978, so some of these events were contemporary. We know more today about the Soviet Union and the experiences of Communist China in the 20th century. It is fair to say Burns was very wrong in his opinion of these two political systems and their relevance to his school of leadership. The other sections are much better.
Why give it 3 stars with all these problems? Burns combines multiple disciplines for a fairly reasonable case against compartmentalizing social sciences (this was his implicit objective). His study of leadership became the basis for later works, especially those covering popular and business leadership. Finally, I for the most part agree with his primary thesis and the supporting definitions early in the book. So it gets an average grade from me.