The Burns Paradox

Which came first–the leader or the follower?

In Burns (2007), a paradox between leader and follower is introduced and discussed. This paradox is based on the premise that occasionally (but more often than we might think), the roles of “follower” and “leader” could be reversed. Especially depending on the context of each situation, a leader in one area of life might find themselves a dutiful follower in another (Burns, 2007, p. 171).

The question is posed: “how do we distinguish conceptually between leaders and followers?” To personalize this question, perhaps we can think of instances in our own lives when we’ve played the role of ‘leader’ for one group–perhaps as a parent or older sibling at home–then we turned around and followed a leader of another group–perhaps our boss at work or a teacher. The distinction between these roles is clear, aided by a change in location and people. But what about a time when this distinction might be less apparent? Think, perhaps, of a military relationship between a private and a sergeant. There exists rigid hierarchical structure, to be sure. How often might these rigid roles become fluid in the heat of battle? (Burns, 2007)

Burns (2007), resolves this paradox in part by separating people with “unrealized wants [and] unexpressed attitudes” from those with “strong motivations to initiate action” on the other. By this definition, one person could very well be both a leader and a follower in any situation. Their leadership initiative would depend upon their natural motivations.

As a student employee, I can see this in action. Even though I am at the bottom of the totem pole within the organization, I am still making an impact in students’ lives through the decisions I make. I still manage to lead my coworkers to a small extent by encouraging them to engage in office-wide activities or by giving constructive feedback to my supervisors. My passion is the creating of community, so I express leadership through my initiation of activities that would promote community–even while I follow the job-specific leadership of my superiors.

These experiences have led me to realize how vital the flow of information and relations is between a leader and their followers. Komives (2012) examines what is necessary for an organization to experience transformative change. It starts with an individual understanding of the purpose behind organizational decisions (Komives, 2012).

She makes the point that “when leadership is not done in secret and imposed upon followers but is a collaborative and empowering process between leaders and followers, the organization can accomplish more than ever thought possible” (Komives, 2012, p.106). In such an organization, the commitment of each individual follower to organizational goals makes each of them a leader on some level.


  1. Burns, James MacGregor (2007-12-01). Transforming Leadership. Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  2. Komives, Susan R.; Wagner, Wendy (2012-06-14). Leadership for a Better World: Understanding the Social Change Model of Leadership Development. Wiley. Kindle Edition.

My Meyers-Briggs Type

Over the course of my leadership journey in school, I have grown in my self-awareness. This is partly due to my newfound understanding of my personality preferences according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test. According to this test, I am an ISTJ. Thinking is my dominant trait, which I prefer to in my inner world as an introvert. Sensing is my auxiliary trait, which I use when I interact with the outside world as a balance to my dominant trait.

The official MBTI website describes this Type as “quiet, serious, earn success by thoroughness and dependability. Practical, matter-of-fact, realistic, and responsible. Decide logically what should be done and work toward it steadily, regardless of distractions. Take pleasure in making everything orderly and organized – their work, their home, their life. Value traditions and loyalty.” I can identify with all of these descriptors. As I read through them, situations come to mind that confirm their validity.

My primary source of energy comes from my own internal world. I rejuvenate best when I am on my own or with my best friend or family. We recently had a friend stay on our living room couch for a week and it definitely proved how much I value my private space. She stayed either in the house or with me the entire time, inviting herself into every aspect of my life. As much as I love this girl, I began to get anxious for the first time in my life. By the end of the week my body would occasionally tremble involuntarily, I felt constantly nauseous, and I had difficulty falling asleep or focusing on tasks. The moment she drove away, my appetite returned and I fell on the couch to sleep. It was an uncanny, but educational experience.

I have a weak preference between sensing and intuition in the way I take in information. Like someone with intuition, I tend to see the bigger picture when I look at a scene. Yet at the same time, I observe details that speak to the bigger picture using all of my senses.

Usually, I prefer to base my decisions in logic and on principle. Growing up, I would always identify with Spock, the emotionless, logic-driven Vulcan from Star Trek. To this day, I still prefer the logic in strategic decisions, although I have lately been learning how to make more feeling-based decisions. My roommate is a very feeling person who doesn’t always agree with my decisions, even if she recognizes the logic behind them. It is a good exercise, but my preference still hasn’t changed.

I have 5, 10, and 40-year plans for my life. I make lists and plan ahead and keep journals. I am more comfortable when decisions have been made and a plan is settled upon. However, I am internally open to deviation from said plan, if a better option presents itself. This reflects my extroverted preference for judging and my introverted preference for perceiving.

“[Sensing-Thinking types] are often found in careers that require a technical approach to things, ideas, or people, and tend to be less interested in careers that require nurturing of others or attending to their growth and development,” according to the MBTI website. Currently, in school, I am studying business accounting. If I make this my profession, then I imagine it will fit my type preferences very well. Most of accounting work is individual (Introversion) and requires one to be very observant of details while keeping a bigger picture in mind (Sensing). Decisions must be made logically (Thinking). There’s not much emotion in numbers and what ever emotion does get attached to the numbers must be ignored on an ethical basis. Lastly, accountants are expected to make decisions based on their work and be organized and confident in their answers (Judging).

I think of the verse that goes something like, “a man cannot have two masters—he cannot serve both God and money. Either he will love one and hate the other, or he will hate one and love the other.” If an accountant truly loved money, then that emotion could easily cloud their judgment and lead to harmful fraud. If, on the other hand, an accountant loved God, then they could be trusted to handle the money appropriately.

This exercise has really helped me to understand my preferences and the difference between myself and my peers. Someone’s spontaneity that might previously have annoyed me can now be embraced as a wonderful difference. It doesn’t matter if it’s not my preference to be spontaneous—I can enjoy the experience with insider knowledge.