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Revolutionary Leadership and China’s Transformations

James Macgregor BurnsJames MacGregor Burns looks at leadership in China in the time of Mao and more recently, and discusses the leader-follower relationship, a key aspect of transformational leadership, a concept closely associated with him. Professor Burns (1918-2014) was a Pulitzer-Prize-winning presidential biographer and a pioneer in the study of leadership. His book Leadership is still considered the seminal work in the field of leadership studies, and he was senior editor of Berkshire’s Encyclopedia of Leadership. Length: 15 minutes.

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Revolutionary Leadership and China’s Transformations, An Interview with James MacGregor Burns

This edited interview was published in Guanxi: The China Letter, Volume 1, Issue 9: Leadership, January 2007, Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.

KC: You went to China early in its liberalization process. What were your impressions?

JMB: One thing that happened when I went to China, 15 to 20 years ago, was that I spoke to students at universities and was amazed to find out how much they knew, already, about the United States. A lot of them seemed to subscribe to Time magazine and other periodicals, and the questions they asked were very good. In fact, I felt a little embarrassed that maybe I was telling them things they already knew.

But this gave me my first inkling of the China that was being reborn. In my book on leadership, I was trying to deal with leadership in the most general way. Not just a specific form of leadership, but what truly is leadership. And the bottom line on that is—I can put it in one sentence—leadership is the mobilization of followers in order to make them the new leaders. The crucial question is What are the tests, the values, the criteria by which that leader-follower connection is made? And I think that has a lot of relevance for China.

KC: In the opening to your section on China in Leadership, you write about how revolutionary leadership has been remarkably effective and yet “anomalous because the leadership has continued to celebrate Marxism while violating its most fundamental precepts concerning the nature of revolutionary action.” I had understood that leadership was not a concept that was much discussed in China, but I now wonder if that’s true?

JMB: A few months ago, I would have really wondered how much leadership as leadership is discussed in China, but then I got this call from a Chinese professor whom I had never met, saying that he wanted to do a new translation of Leadership, and of course I told him I was delighted. He did not really give much clue as to what’s going on, but I’d say Leadership will sell even more with a better translation. There’s obviously great interest in something that’s not just leadership from the top down (which is really kind of a Communist Party approach to leadership, and indeed, the approach to leadership in many parties and many countries). I write about the idea of mobilization of followers, as I say, from the bottom up.

When the business of the second translation came up, I thought to myself, “I wonder what I really said about China, and particularly what I said about Mao.” And so I went back to the book, and I felt kind of good, because I found that instead of taking the usual Western critical attitude toward Mao, I really sort of raised him as a crucial leader and case study in leadership.

All the same, I wonder, as you’re wondering, just how a very Western book like Leadership has come to have a good reception in China. Of course, we have to keep in mind we’re dealing with a China that is rapidly changing. That fact makes this a very interesting time to talk about leadership, because here is a country that’s making the most amazing shift from a broadly totalitarian Communist regime into something that we can’t quite grasp yet, but on the one hand has an amazing degree of freedom, of communication, modern technology of communication, books, as we’re discussing. On the other hand, you keep reading about people arrested for saying things that the regime doesn’t like. So you can’t help wondering what’s in the future.

Now one reason I’m so pleased that they’re doing this new translation is that I think my book will be a little part of the transition that’s going on in China, where you don’t just talk about leaders, you talk about followers. And you don’t just talk about leaders telling followers what to do, or even followers telling leaders what to do, you apply what I said at the start, as the relationship between leader and follower is developing. Why should the follower follow a leader? The leader has to answer and say, “Because I believe in equality,” or “I believe in opportunity,” or “I believe in fairness.” So that becomes the Magna Carta of the leader-follower relationship, at least in the West. The big question, again, is What will happen in China?

KC: What should we be watching for in the leader-follower relationship in China?

JMB: We need to watch to what extent followers become empowered: we must see whether they have the right to vote, the right to speak out, the right to read, and so on. The followers should have a lot of power, and basic values such as equality and liberty should be present.

KC: The leadership bureaucracy in China is rather hard for us to understand, but as you’ve mentioned, China today is changing rapidly, as is the whole vision for the future. What you think the leaders today are doing or trying to do?

JMB: I’m glad you raise that question. There’s some kind of amazing transformation under way, but we don’t really know how basic the transformation is. I make a big point that true transformation is a really fundamental change, not just a superficial change. I think that there is fundamental change going on, but every time I read about some new program, or a new factory, or the development of a new area of the country, and so forth, I wonder if this is something dictated by the government, or if it’s something spontaneous, rising out of the people, rising out of the followers, and not just the leaders.

KC: I understand that there have been problems in China with corruption at regional and local levels, and it actually seems quite hard to control. What do you make of this?

JMB: If you give more people opportunities, if you give a lot of businessmen the chance to do their thing, and you let a lot of politicians develop who are doing their thing, you’re going to have corruption. I think we should assume that there will be a lot of corruption in China, corruption in many different forms. Take it for granted, and don’t let it hinder us from looking at the crucial question, which is the extent to which there will be democracy in the new China.


Karen ChristensenKaren Christensen is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Berkshire Publishing Group and a writer specializing in sustainability and community with a focus on China. One of her current projects is with George R. Goethals and Crystal L. Hoyt of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. They are coediting Women and Leadership: History, Concepts, and Case Studies (A Berkshire Essential), and Christensen has ensured that there coverage of China and other parts of the world, including articles on Wu Zetian and Cixi drawn from the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography.

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