Wednesday 08th April 00:26

"Robert Burns, the Transformational Leader"

MTL Newsletter: 3rd February 2013

Hi everyone,

I'm not particularly well up on Scottish literature - I always need a translation - but every year around January 25th, the birthday of Robert Burns in 1759, we, like millions in Scotland and around the world, celebrate Burns Night. It may have something to do with the fact that we're just a few miles from the Scottish border. Or it may be that the traditional Burns' Night meal of haggis, neeps (swede), and tatties is just a nice, warming meal on a cold winter's night.

Anyway, this year, after our celebratory meal, I googled "Robert Burns" to find out a bit more about the man known by different names as Bobbie Burns, Rabbie Burns, Scotland's Favourite Son, the Ploughman Poet, the Heaven-Taught Ploughman, Robden of Solway Firth and the Bard of Ayrshire.

I was fascinated to learn that Burns produced more than 550 songs and poems in his short life including "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose" and the piece he will always be associated with on New Year's Eve, "Auld Lang Syne". I also discovered that Burns was a great romancer and the acknowledged father of 12 children by four different women. I also learnt that, after his death at the age of 37 in 1796, (from a dental extraction that went wrong), Burns' popularity soared and there are now more statues of him (excluding religious ones) than anyone other than Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus.

But the fact that interested me most was that, in acknowledgement of Burns' promotion of human welfare and social reform, there is an annual "Robert Burns Humanitarian Award" that is awarded to the group or individual who has “saved, improved or enriched the lives of others or society as a whole, through personal self-sacrifice, selfless service, ‘hands on’ charitable/volunteer work, or other acts."

The 2013 award went to Khalil Dale, the British aid worker murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2012. Khalil, who had converted to Islam and was formerly known as Ken, had worked for both the Red Cross and Red Crescent in some of the most dangerous places in the world such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. When captured, he had been working in a clinic treating people wounded in the war in Afghanistan. He was said to have an endless supply of understanding and caring.

Reading this story made me look a little closer not at the facts of Burns' life but at who he was and how his life and words inspired others. For Burns' afficionado, David Sibbald, it is Burns' compassion for all living creatures that made Burns special, a compassion that was said to have inspired Abraham Lincoln and almost certainly inspired Khalil Gale. David Sibbald says you can see the compassion in both Burns's life and his poems, whether for a young girl accused of "loose morals" for embracing a boy, a field mouse whose nest was destroyed by a plough, a daisy cut down before its time, or himself when he had to part with someone he cherished.

David Sibbald goes on to say that Burns' enduring popularity is because he is able to "transform people in a literal sense, to change them in mind and heart; enlarge their vision, insight and understanding; and bring about changes that are permanent, self-perpetuating, and momentum-building", words from Stephen Covey on the power of a transformational leader.

Burns' namesake, James McGregor Burns, wrote a book on "Transformational Leadership" in which he gave the following prescription for being a transformational leader:

1. Be inspired in your heart and mind, and show it.

2. Be connected to yourself, the world and the people around you. Be grounded in reality.

3. Have a vision and communicate it with passion and purpose. Allow your emotion to speak to others in a way that transcends the mind, and speaks to the heart.

4. Pay personal attention to others in a way that engages them and generates trust and commitment. Genuinely care about them, what they want, and how you can serve them.

5. Access the awesome power of the mind. Be curious, open to new ideas and learn constantly.

It seems to me that every single leader can aspire to do any of these whether they are in an official "leadership" position or performing a less exalted role in the team.

Robert Burns, who was born and died in the pre-industrial age, and spent his life in a poverty-stricken rural part of Britain, would not recognise the world we live in today. He would certainly not understand how we can learn about him on Google nor what is meant by a "transformational leader". But, no less than the movingly inspiring figure of Khalil Gale, his message and values are as valid to us today as they ever were.


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