Seth Godin: Permission Marketing

The internet has changed the old pre-1990 world of marketing and advertising. It has thrown up new rules, new tools and new gurus. One of the very first to spot that this would happen, and then to study strategy and tactics, was Seth Godin. A serial entrepreneur and opinion former, Seth Godin is far better known among entrepreneurs, small business owners and freelancers than among the marketing managers of larger corporations. but he has worked hard to keep his analysis fresh and relevant, and there is much that any manager can learn from him.

Seth Godin

Short Biography

Seth Godin was born, grew up and continues to live and work in New York State. Born in 1960, he read computer science and philosophy at Tufts University and then did an MBA in marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He then went to work at educational software business, Spinnaker Software, as a brand manager.

He started his first business, in book packaging, after leaving Spinnaker in 1986, but real success came in 1995, when he and business partner Mark Hurst started a marketing company called Yoyodyne. Godin is an avid reader and Yoyodyne was possibly named after a fictional defence contractor in Thomas Pynchon’s novels.

Yoyodyne used the concept of ‘Permission Marketing’. This is a term Godin claims to have coined with his book of the same name, published in 1999. The idea behind this is that we, the targets of marketing, give our permission for the marketer to send us their messages. In the case of Yoyodyne, it gained permission on behalf of its clients, by offering their prospects games and contests. With a blue-chip customer base, Godin sold the business in 1998 to Yahoo!, becoming Yahoo!’s VP for Direct Marketing. He only stayed for two years, which suggests that this was a tie-in period, before setting out on his own again.

Multiple ventures have followed: ChangeThis (an idea dissemination platform – sold in 2005), Squidoo (a web microsite platform sold in 2014), The Domino Project (a book publishing venture that published one book per month in 2011 – four have been reprinted by Portfolio/Penguin in 2015).

In amongst this, Godin has been a prolific author and a successful speaker. He largely promotes his own events based on a massive following for his daily blog posts. This gives him a massive permission marketing base for his books, events, courses and any other venture he is drawn to.

Seven Big Ideas

We can track Godin’s ideas through his books (currently over 20, I think). Let’s take a look at a few that will appeal to a range of managers and professionals.

Permission Marketing (1999) and All Marketers are Liars (2004)

Don’t force your message on your audience – create a demand from your audience to hear your message. And then, when they come to you, don’t tell them about your product, tell them stories.

Purple Cow (2002)

The key is differentiation. Without it you won’t stand out and marketing will fail. You need to abandon product, place, price, and promotion in favour of p for phenomenal or, as Godin puts it: p for Purple Cow.

The Dip (2007)

Doing things really well is hard. You make a lot of progress at the start of your learning journey and then slow down. This is the Dip. If you take on too much, you won’t have the time or attention to escape the dip on anything. True success means quitting on most things so you can succeed on a few.

Tribes: We need you to lead us (2008)

Market by leading. Find like-minded people who believe in what you are doing and lead them. Create products or services that they want, and they will crave what you offer. The ultimate in permission marketing. See an earlier Pocketblog about Godin’s Tribes concept.

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (2010)

Market yourself by becoming essential to your organisation or your tribe. Do this with creativity and by doing the most valuable work that you can. This is a manifesto for personal success, rather than the success of your product.

We are all Weird (2011)

Everyone is different and the internet allows us to make for and market to the long tail – small communities who would have been too small to build a career or product on before the internet allowed us to address the world.

The Icarus Deception (2012)

Playing it safe is not a safe strategy. Success means taking risks and being exceptional. Be creative and do the best work you possibly can.

Seth Godin at TED

Seth Godin has spoken twice at TED, in 2003 and in 2009.



John Kotter: Leadership and Change

John Kotter was a star academic from an early age and is now regarded as one of the leading thinkers, researchers and consultants on organisational change. He is equally known for his earlier work on leadership. But for Kotter, the two cannot be separated:

“Leadership produces change.”

Kotter says. And change is the function of leadership.

John Kotter

Short biography

John Kotter was born in 1947, in San Diego, California. He moved to the east coast to gain his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT (1968), his SM in management from MIT’s Sloan School of Management (1970), and a DBA from Harvard in organisational behaviour (1972).

Kotter stayed on at Harvard, becoming a tenured professor at 33, in 1980, having already published four books. It was his 1982 book, The General Managers, and the accompanying Harvard Business Review article, that started to make his name outside of academic circles. This set out the need for a general manager to master both the competencies needed to run their business and the relationship-building skills needed to extend effective networks throughout the wider organisation.

In a series of books, Kotter established himself as adept at distilling direct observation of what happens inside an organisation, into general principles that others can learn from. Key books include:

In 2001, Kotter retired from his full time faculty role and became professor emeritus, retaining Harvard Business School’s Konosuke Matsushita Chair of Leadership, which he has held since 1990. in 1997, he published a biography of the Japanese entrepreneur who endowed the chair: ‘Matsushita: Lessons from the 20th Century’s Most Remarkable Entrepreneur‘.

Kotter’s current activity focuses around Kotter International, the consultancy he co-founded in 2008. He is reputedly one of the most in-demand and highest paid speakers on the US corporate speaking circuit, with fees allegedly starting at $75,000. You can hear a flavour of him as a speaker on his YouTube Channel.

Leadership and Management

Kotter’s observations led him to concur with Warren Bennis that there are differences between management and leadership. While managers’ roles include organising, controlling, planning and budgeting, Kotter argued, in A Force for Change, that there are three principal roles for a business leader:

  1. Setting direction for the future of their business
  2. Aligning their people to that direction
  3. Motivating and inspiring people to move in that direction

For Kotter, then, leadership is all about change. More than most of his contemporary leadership commentators, Kotter veers towards the ‘leaders are born’ end of the scale, arguing that the best exhibit traits that go beyond what they can learn: energy, intellect, drive and integrity. But he does acknowledge that experiences shape leadership, noting that diverse and tangential career opportunities help shape leaders beyond the narrow confines of management.

Leading Change

Kotter’s transformative book (and the most reprinted ever Harvard Business Review article that accompanied it: Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail) was ‘Leading Change‘. This set out to show that managing change is not enough; change needs to be led. The book is widely regarded as a classic in the business/management field and was one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential business management titles (along with books by many of the Management Thinkers covered in this blog series).

in the article and book, Kotter sets out an 8 step process for leading change, and argues that companies fail to deliver successful transformation when they do not pursue all of the steps, in the sequence, with sufficient attention. These steps embody much earlier thinking – in them, we can see the shadow of Kurt Lewin’s Freeze Phases, for example. What makes them particularly valuable is the clarity with which Kotter sets out the tasks leaders face, and the illustrative examples he gives.

In 2002, he co-authored Heart of Change with Deloitte Consulting’s Dan Cohen, in which they focus on case studies to illustrate this further. I have a strong memory of Cohen presenting at a US conference I attended towards the end of my time with Deloitte. The clarity of this approach rang out for me.

To further clarify, Kotter then co-authored Our Iceberg is Melting with Holger Rathgeber. This book turned the whole 8-step process into an allegorical tale of a penguin who becomes aware of global warming and needs to influence change among his compatriots. Would that more climate campaigners could learn some of these lessons. I guess this book was targeted at the market that made Spencer Johnson’s ‘Who Moved my Cheese?‘ (another Time top 25 book) such a huge success. Whilst Cheese focuses on the personal effects of change, Iceberg teaches how to lead change.

The Eight Steps

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture


2010’s book ‘Buy-In‘ set out to help leaders make their case, but it was Kotter’s latest, 2014 book, ‘Accelerate‘ that has moved his thinking forward. Yes, Kotter International uses slightly new terminology around the 8 steps, but the main change that Accelerate introduced was a greater sense of urgency to the process, the consequent need for concurrency of the steps, and a determination that complex organisations need to introduce elements of a more agile, entrepreneurial approach.

The comparison of the older and more recent approach is this:

Leading Change’s original 8-Step Process

  • Lead change in a rigid, sequential process
  • Create a small, powerful core group to drive change
  • Function within a traditional hierarchy
  • Focus on doing one new thing very well and then move onto the next thing

Accelerate’s new thinking

  • Run the eight steps concurrently and continuously
  • Form a large cohort of volunteers  from throughout all levels and divisions of the organization to drive the change
  • Create a network of change agents that can act in an entrepreneurial way, outside the traditional hierarchy, to respond in a more flexible, agile way
  • Constantly look for opportunities, and set up initiatives to capitalise on them rapidly

Kotter has stayed at the forefront of thinking about organisational leadership. He now argues that constant disruption from turbulent market shifts is the biggest challenge business leaders face. And agility is the skill they need. Perhaps not surprisingly, his HBR article ‘Accelerate!’ is another of their most widely requested reprints.

Angela Duckworth: True Grit

What are the best predictors of success in life? Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence blew the bottom out of general intelligence for most of us, back in the mid 1990s.

One facet of emotional intelligence is motivation, and this is front and centre of the work of another psychologist. Angela Lee Duckworth’s research interest is competencies other than general intelligence that predict academic and professional achievement. And she has been putting the spotlight on two of them: self-control and perseverance.

Angela Duckworth

Very Short Biography

Angela Lee was born in 1970, and grew up in New Jersey. She was the third child of immigrants from China, who had fled the cultural revolution. The parents were exceptionally results-oriented, leading to three children who have all excelled. However, as the third child, Duckworth recalls feeling a sense of benign neglect, as her parents focused their attention on her older siblings.

She was exceptionally bright and worked hard, entering Harvard and graduating in neuro-biology in 1992. Two years later, she took up a scholarship to study neuroscience at the University of Oxford, leaving with an MSc in 1996.

From there, she joined consulting firm McKinsey and Company (where she met her husband, Jason Duckworth). Promised opportunities to do pro bono work, but being allocated work in the pharmaceuticals sector, Duckworth left and started teaching, first in New York. During this time, she started paying attention to why some children succeeded and others failed.

She joined a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Positive Psychology Center, under the leadership of Martin Seligman, who supervised her study. She was awarded her PhD in 2006 and took up an academic post there. She is now a Professor of Psychology and leads the Duckworth Lab, which focuses on two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control.

Grit and Self-control

Duckworth’s work shows that two traits predict success in life:

  • Grit
    the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward long-term goals
  • Self-control
    the voluntary regulation of behavioural, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions.

These two are different. Grit equips you to pursue especially challenging aims over long periods; years or even decades. Self-control operates at a short timescale in the battle against distractions and temptations – willpower, if you like.

Duckworth’s research shows that the two are related, but not totally correlated. People who are gritty tend to be more self-controlled, but the correlation is not total: some people have masses of grit but little self-control, while some exceptionally self-controlling people are not especially gritty. Her team has developed non-commercial scales that measure each.

Duckworth’s research has found that, when they strip out the effects of intelligence, grit and self-control predict objectively measured success outcomes. They have used contexts as diverse as children’s spelling competitions, military officer training, and general high school graduation results.

Because of the importance of these factors, therefore, Duckworth has introduced them into the routines for her family: husband and two daughters. Academically, her team is researching ways to instil self-control and grit into children. She has shown that children can learn and practise strategies to build grit and self-control.

In a recent Pocketblog, we looked at the work of Carol Dweck, on Growth Mindset. Duckworth sees Dweck as a role model and is collaborating with her because she has found that children who have more of a growth mindset tend to be grittier. Once again, there isn’t a perfect correlation, but enough to suggest that one of the things that makes you gritty is  a growth mindset: the attitude ‘I can get better if I try harder’. This should help you to be tenacious, determined, and hard-working: gritty.

Angela Duckworth’s work in her own words

Angela Duckworth’s 6 minute talk on Grit is one of my favourites and has over 6 million views. She is also working on a book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance due for publication in early 2016.

Alan Sugar: Street Smart

While not quite the classic ‘rags to riches’ story, Alan Sugar is a genuine example of the trope of a smart, hard working street trader, who makes it to the big time. And what a big time it is. The Sunday Times Rich List rates him as a Sterling billionaire. It’s easy to feel we know Alan Sugar, through his successful appearances on the UK version of The Apprentice. I suspect that what we see on screen, however, is a character: part Alan Sugar, and part the creation of the shows directors, producers and editors.

Alan Sugar

Short Biography

Alan Michael Sugar was born in 1947 and grew up in Hackney, in East London. His father worked in the East End garment industry, as did my grandmother. After leaving school at 16, Sugar spent a short time in the Civil Service, before investing £50 of his savings in a van and some electrical goods to sell from it.

Sugar was an adept street trader and gradually moved up the value chain to wholesaling and import, founding his first company, Amstrad (AMS Trading), in 1968. But Sugar realised he would only find the big profit in manufacturing. The business he understood best was consumer electronics, so Amstrad’s first manufacturing venture was record turntables. This was the first of many examples of Sugar finding ways to reduce manufacturing costs substantially, so he could out-compete rivals on price.

The 1980s were great years for Sugar and Amstrad, starting in 1980 with its flotation on the London Stock Exchange. The company grew rapidly and launched its first computer in 1984. Although outcompeted by Apple, Commodore and the BBC Micro, it did sell well domestically, as did the following year’s business-oriented word processor. The 1980s ended with the launch of Amstrad’s first satellite TV receiver dish – a line that was to be extremely profitable, with the growth of satellite broadcasting by Sky, BSB, and later, the merged BSkyB. The 1990s were more troubling for Amstrad, which suffered a number of commercial setbacks.

I cannot help wondering if Sugar ‘took his eye off the ball’ in the 1990s, because this was the time too, that he bought and chaired the Premier League football Club Tottenham Hotspur (1991-2001). He later described this period as a waste of his life, and it was certainly a fractious time at the club.

In 2007, Sugar cleared house, selling off Amstrad to business partners BSkyB and his final stake in Tottenham Hotspur.

In 2000, Sugar was knighted “for services to the Home Computer and Electronics Industry” and became Sir Alan Sugar, and then in 2009, was enobled as Baron Sugar of Clapton, to take up a place in Gordon Brown’s Labour Government, sitting in the House of Lords. In 2015, Sugar resigned the Labour Whip, saying that the party’s policies had drifted too far in a direction away from the needs of British business.

Amstrad is also a serious philanthropist, donating substantial funds and time to care and arts organisations. He has written four books too, of which the most important and best selling is his autobiography, What You See Is What You Get. And, of course, he is best known in the UK for his appearance in every series of BBC TV’s The Apprentice.

Business Lessons from Lord Sugar

Much has been written on this – including by me, in a series of blogs drawing lessons from episodes of The Apprentice over a number of years. So let’s keep it simple. Here are five important lessons for managers and business people to bear in mind.

Lesson 1: Character is Destiny

Whether you like or loathe the image he portrays in public, Sugar cleaves firmly to his own principles and business values. If I had to assess ‘the real Alan Sugar’ – and bear in mind, I have no privileged knowledge here – I would speculate that he is someone who has deep respect for people who can demonstrate their capabilities and expertise at the highest level, and has no time for people who have little ability. Anyone who tries to make up for their shortcomings through ingratiation or deception will incur his wrath.

I suspect trusting his closest allies and advisors profoundly has been important in building his success, but his blunt, no nonsense, and occasionally abrasive style has created detractors. His management style has been criticised, as has his attitude to women at work.

Lesson 2: Spot the Next Big Thing… then move quickly

Computers, word processors, TV satellite dishes, email, PDAs, satellite TV receivers… Sugar was in on the ground floor of all of these. At each stage, he used the knowledge and skills gained in earlier ventures to move quickly and seize market share. He also has a strong insight into customer desires and behaviours, which is critical in commercial decision-making. Not all his ventures have been hugely successful, but in business, it is the cumulative success that matters. Indeed, not all his customer predictions have been sound either: he famously predicted the demise of the iPod within a year. Whoops.

Lesson 3: Out-compete ruthlessly

Sugar’s primary competitive strategy is to out-compete on price. Take early stage technology that has started to stabilise, and find a way to manufacture and ship it at vastly reduced costs. The Amstrad computer was reportedly designed on an airline napkin, on a flight from Japan (where he’d seen early computers on sale) and Hong Kong, where he had business contacts that could help with manufacturing.

Lesson 4: Roll with the Punches

Sugar is a great example of business resilience. Not every venture was a success and he has had difficult times in his commercial life. Maybe a stable family life (40+ years of marriage) helped, but I suspect his personal resilience is also down to his character. Expect set backs, take them on the chin, learn from them, and come back fighting.

Lesson 5: Learn how to Negotiate well

I don’t know what Lord Sugar’s negotiating secrets would be – or even if they are anything more than consistent and ruthless application of sound basic principles. But it is certain that he is able to secure every last ounce out of a deal and is scathing of people who ‘leave money on the table’ in a negotiation.

For more on Negotiation, see:

John Elkington: Triple Bottom Line

The need for sustainability and for corporations to take their responsibilities to society is a commonplace now. It was not always thus. And one man has played a big part in that transformation: John Elkington.

John Elkington

Very Short Biography

John Elkington was born in 1949, and grew up in England, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus. He studied Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of Essex, gaining his BA in 1970. He then went on to gain an MPhil in Urban and Regional Planning from University College London (where he is currently a visiting Professor – also at Imperial College and Cranfield University).

From there, he worked for four years at a transport and environment consultancy, before spending five years as the editor of the ENDS report (ENvironmental Data Services) from 1978-1983. A prolific writer, Elkington’s first book, The Ecology of Tomorrow’s World, appeared in 1980.

In 1987, he co-founded consulting business, SustainAbility, and in 1997 wrote the book that popularised his most notable idea, the Triple Bottom LineCannibals with Forks: Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business continues to be a high-selling book.

Currently, Elkington serves as Executive Chairman of another business he founded, Volans. This is both a consultancy and think-tank that tries to foresee the future and help clients to make breakthrough changes. He also continues to write books and articles for many publications including frequent articles for the website, GreenBiz. He speaks, and serves on many advisory boards guiding big businesses on sustainability and their corporate and social responsibility.

The Triple Bottom Line

Among the catalogue of ideas that any serious manager or business person must be familiar with is Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line.

He suggested that, in addition to the usual profit-based bottom line measure of a company’s performance, businesses should also prepare bottom line measures in a ‘people account’ and in a ‘planet account’; giving rise to the three pillars of people, profit and planet – another coinage of Elkington’s.

These are often represented as three overlapping circles of concern that clearly represent three views of overlapping stakeholder groups.

Triple Bottom Line

‘Profit’ represents the economic imperative felt by owners and shareholders, whose concern is for monetary reward and growth of capital. It refers to the traditional bottom line in a company’s accounts.

‘People’ represents the needs of the organisation’s community and therefore its corporate social responsibilities. A corporation’s social responsibilities extend to all of its stakeholders; not least its employees and the communities within which its facilities sit. This is a big challenge for companies whose shareholders demand that they maximise dividends, whilst its workers are in countries where the state does little to champion their rights.

‘Planet’ represents the natural environment and the part an organisation must play in our joint responsibility for its stewardship. The best organisations treat the environment as a prestigious stakeholder and the worst as nothing more than a source of raw materials and a sink for disposing of waste.

Progress to Date

Pocketblog is not a political commentator, so it must be our readers who assess the progress corporations have made to making the triple bottom line a meaningful commitment. There are examples at both extremes. What is evident, however, is that the challenges facing the world in the coming years are equally great with regards to people and planet, and if too much of our economic activities sacrifice these to the a single profit related bottom line, there may be little left for our grandchildren to spend their profits on.

You May also like the Sustainability Pocketbook

Sustainability Pocketbook

The Sustainability Pocketbook is for managers who want to get involved in this area but are not sure where to start or what they can realistically do.

Jane ni Dhulchaointigh: Make, mend, modify… play

I have to declare an interest: I love the product that Jane ni Dhulchaointigh invented. It’s fabulous.

There are some things that most of us have around the house. We can’t imagine not having them, yet they were invented in our lifetime, or that of our parents: cellotape, duct tape, blu-tak, superglue, velcro, post its. The next generation will almost certainly include in that list one more: Sugru. That’s what Jane ni Dhulchaointigh invented.

Jane ni Dhulchaointigh

Very Short Biography

Jane ni Dhulchaointigh (pronounced Jane nee Gull-queen-tig) grew up in Eire, in Kilkenny and studied fine art. She then did a master’s degree in design at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 2004. It was there that, in 2003, she first discovered the material that was, through much research and development, to become Sugru.

She presented a prototype of the material – along with sketchbooks full of uses for it – as her final year project. I don’t know how well it was marked, but she passed and, more important, visitors to the degree show wanted to know how much it cost, and where they could buy it.

ni Dhulchaointigh knew she was onto something.

Now Sugru is a rapidly growing brand that delights its customers and has a loyal following of makers, creators and hackers (in the sense of bodgers trying to make things better) around the world.

Five Lessons to Learn from Jane ni Dhulchaointigh

Sugru is a relatively new business and ni Dhulchaointigh is not a highly public figure (see the depth of the biography I have managed to assemble!) But from what I have read of her story, there are five valuable lessons for entrepreneurs, business people, and managers in general.

If you want to know more of the story of the creation and development of Sugru, the best place to look is on the company website. I have drawn these lessons from various interviews published on the web.

Lesson 1: Be Prepared to Learn

Or: ‘It’s only chemistry’. Jane ni Dhulchaointigh is a designer and sculptor by training and inclination. Creating a new silicone based product and getting it right requires a lot of chemistry. With her business partner, they hired two experienced (then recently retired) silicone chemists, but I like her attitude. Over the years of development, she was determined to learn, so she could contribute to, question, and understand the science. This puts me in mind of the Growth Mindset ideas of Carol Dweck, which this blog covered a couple of months ago.

Lesson 2: Have a Vision

Once Jane ni Dhulchaointigh had the idea for what use to put Sugru to, she was away. In guiding the chemists, she had a clear vision of what her end product needed to be like. She describes it with five words: colour, pleasure, safe, stick, magic. I’ve used Sugru and that’s five ticks. Which brings us to…

Lesson 3: Take your Time

The development process for the final product took many years. Jane ni Dhulchaointigh says she is glad it did. It meant that the product was good, and that she and her team understood it thoroughly. This was no rush job. But the question remained how to get it to market. For this, she is indebted to the advice of a friend. When she failed to secure big funding from a major corporate, she followed the advice and decided to…

Lesson 4: Start small and make it good

Her first commercial batch of Sugru got coverage in Wired, Boing Boing, and the Daily Telegraph, who all gave it rave reviews. She sold out of the 1,000 packs online in 6 hours.

Lesson 5: Be prepared to take risks

Nothing about Jane ni Dhulchaointigh strikes me as a compulsive risk taker, but she describes the whole development process as a series of risks. By taking a cautious, careful approach to risks, and holding tight to a clear vision she believes in, ni Dhulchaointigh has made those risks pay.

Jane ni Dhulchaointigh in her own words

There are a few videos of Jane ni Dhulchaointigh speaking about Sugru’s creation story. Ths is my favourite.

Fun fact for the pub quiz: Sugru is an Anglicised spelling of Irish word Sugradh, meaning ‘play’.

James MacGregor Burns: Transforming Leadership

I first became aware of the ideas of James MacGregor Burns in the late 1990s, and they literally transformed my understanding of Leadership. I am not alone: an earlier generation reading Burns’ 1978 book Leadership was likewise affected. His academic rigour, effortless prose and new approach led directly to the massive growth in leadership courses in business schools, first in the US, and then globally.

James MacGregor Burns

Short Biography

James MacGregor Burns was born in 1918, in Melrose, Massachusetts and grew up in Burlington. He graduated from Williams College in 1939 and went to Washington DC as a congressional intern. During America’s Second World War, he served in the pacific campaign, and documented soldiers’ stories. He was also decorated several times.

After the war, he gained his masters degree and PhD in Government from Harvard, before returning to Williams College to teach. He remained there for his whole career.

Burns was a prolific author, first coming to prominence as author of an influential biography of FD Roosevelt, The Lion and the Fox, in 1956. He was to follow this with a second volume in 1970, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, which won him a Pulitzer Prize the following year. He also engaged in politics directly, standing as a Democrat candidate for Congress in 1958. This is how he came to know JF Kennedy; a relationship which led to his 1960 biography, John Kennedy: A Political Profile.

Politics interested Burns deeply. His first book, Congress on Trial: The Legislative Process and the Administrative State (1949), was widely praised. However, through that medium, he became interested in the nature of leadership. He argued that it was poorly understood and needed to be studied. More than that, he said, we need to educate ourselves to become better leaders.

It was as an historian and political biographer that he first approached the topic of leadership, but his accomplishment was to develop unifying ideas about leadership that were equally valuable in the social and political arena, and in the business and managerial arena. His 1978 book, Leadership, is regarded as a classic and triggered much subsequent research, thinking, and writing.

This is so much so, that the University of Maryland renamed its Academy of Leadership after him and there is an endowed professorial Chair in his name at Harvard (Barbara Kellerman is currently the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership). Of his subsequent writing on leadership (of which there is much), 2003’s Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness is, perhaps, the most important. My copy has an exceptionally high ‘post-it count’ meaning I have found much in it of value.

Burns continued working into his 90s. His last book, Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World, was released in 2013, just a year before his death in July 2014.

Burns on Leadership

Without a doubt, Burns’ main contribution to thinking on leadership was to distinguish two patterns of leadership: transactional and transforming. This distinction is an empirical one, based on his observations. By setting it out clearly, he spurred a generation of researchers to develop the concept of what he called transforming leadership, but which has come to be better known as transformational leadership.

Transactional Leadership

This creates a relationship between leaders and their followers, based on reciprocity – the exchange of support or action by the followers for rewards like recognition, praise, ratings, pay, or status. This kind of leadership works when both sides feel they are getting a fair deal from the other. Much business and managerial leadership takes this form. So too does the run-of-the-mill political leadership, where, in democracies, politicians exchange promises for votes, and in more autocratic systems, these promises and favours are exchanged for support of the powerful and acquiescence of the masses.

Transformational Leadership

This relationship is founded on a drive in the leader to create change. Burns identified two primary sources of that drive: a lust for power, or a sense of vision or values. I suggest our perception of this difference often reflects our sympathy for the vision. Burns assesses Hitler as driven by power, but he may have argued it was a vision.

Setting aside factional arguments, transformational leaders establish their leadership by building trust with their followers that means the transactions can be more one sided: followers act or support the leader through loyalty, rather than exchange. To do this, the leader must engage both the rational and emotional concerns of their followers – hearts and minds. This allows them to link up power bases from many sources, to strengthen their cause.

Burns saw transformational leaders as using their leadership to*:

  1. establish their long-term vision
  2. empower their followers and hand over to them a measure of control
  3. coach and develop their followers to transform their capabilities
  4. challenge the prevailing culture, to catalyse change

Commentators often mis-characterise the distinction as being about change: transformational leaders create change, while transactional leaders work within the status quo. This is not how Burns saw things – certainly not by the new century when he wrote Transforming Leadership. The difference is the type of change. Transactional change substitutes parts, whilst transformational change is a wholesale change at a fundamental, structural level. It is also driven by values, rather than by pragmatism.

Perhaps the most astonishing conclusion that Burns drew was that transformational leadership will have a transforming effect on both the leader and the followers. Done properly, each will raise the others to higher levels of motivation and moral (within the compass of the leader’s vision) action.

This leads to The Burns Paradox: “If leadership and followership are so intertwined and fluid, how do we distinguish conceptually between leaders and followers?”**

The resolution that Burns offers is that we need to start to take a more subtle and complex systems view: leadership creates change, but in the right circumstances, the concepts of leader and follower melt away. Forget the current anti-capitalist overtones. This sounds very much like self-governing, collective-responsibility principle of pure anarchism to me. And I like it.

*  This list was echoed by Bernard Bass who, more than anyone, developed Burns’ ideas on transformational leadership. He was to articulate some important differences (like the possibility for co-existence of transformational and transactional leadership in one leader). He set out four roles for transformational leadership:

  1. Inspirational motivation
  2. Idealised influence
  3. Individualised consideration
  4. Intellectual stimulation

** Transforming Leadership, chapter 10.