BOOK REVIEW

Philip Selznick, LEADERSHIP IN ADMINISTRATION:
A Sociological Interpretation
Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1957
©2000 Edward G. Rozycki

RETURN
edited 8/17/11

The Purpose of the Book

This book is best understood as an ideological tract, an attempt to persuade business and military managers that the ideals of community service and liberal politics promotes their best interests. If, on the contrary, one tries to understand it as a neutral analysis of organizations, the criticisms of Charles Perrow (COMPLEX ORGANIZATIONS: A Critical Essay, Second Ed., Oakland, NJ: Scott-Foresman, 1979) are severely damaging. There is a major flaw in Selznick's reasoning -- to be discussed below -- which proves fatal to his analysis, if, in fact, analysis is the most important point of the book.

Selznick writes.

The argument of this essay is quite simply stated: the executive becomes a statesman as he makes the transition from administrative management to institutional leadership. (p.4)
What is the nature of this argument? Is it a presentation of factual premises and scientific laws from which an empirically testable conclusion can be drawn? Not at all. Rather, it is the depiction of an ideal, the "statesman", which the reader is entreated to emulate by foregoing "narrow" goals of efficiency and by "infusing" the organization which he administers with values that comprehend those of the greater society in which it is found.

It is easy to dismiss the foreword of a book as a mere adornment, a congratulatory introduction that has little to do with its content. The foreword to LEADERSHIP IN ADMINISTRATION is much more than this. Actually it is a good indicator of the purpose and content of the book. Clarence B. Randall writes this in the foreword:

When the thoughtful American pauses to reflect upon the contrast between his life and that of his opposite number behind the Iron Curtain. and asks himself why it is that our life is so rich and the other so drab, he must inevitably arrive at the conclusion that the secret lies in the contrasting forms under which society here, and society there, are organized.
The answer, expands Randall, is not merely that our governmental. forms are maintained by the consent of the governed but that the consent of the governed is "... the universal method by which we. in America organize all forms of human effort. (vii, my italics) Is this a fact? Are there no forms of human effort in this country which the consent of those "governed" is not obtained prior to that effort? "Business, production, education, public administration, the Church: they all advance toward their objectives as institutions through the unifying force of leadership that is willingly followed by free men."(viii) (One might give these words an Orwellian twist: unless one follows this leadership, one is not a "free man". But this would be to read the book as sinister, which it is not. It is propaganda with which I, as something of a liberal, am quite sympathetic albeit unimpressed by its subtlety.)

The continuity of leadership, writes Randall, rests solely upon meritorious performance. Leadership is to be distinguished within the book from authoritarian control. A leadership principle will be provided by Selznick that will enable the businessman to broaden his horizons and respond to developments in a changing world.

Efficiency, Organizations and Institutions

Concern with efficiency is for "lower" echelons of the organization. The logic of efficiency "loses its force" (p.3) as we approach the top. Mechanical metaphors of smooth efficiency are out of place at those levels where policy considerations take precedence.

On page 4, Selznick introduces rather off-handedly a major theoretical premise: observers of large enterprises, trying to see them "as a whole", know that "no social process can be understood save as it is located in the behavior of individuals, and especially in their perceptions of themselves and each other." (Theorists of a different persuasion might take exception to this.) In becoming a "statesman" - clearly not a derogatory title -- the manager reassesses his own tasks and the needs of the enterprise in a way "marked by a concern for the evolution of the institution as a whole" (p. 5)

Organizations as rational tools, judged by their efficiency, are merely expendable tools. As they become social institutions, their expendibility decreases in direct proportion as they are "infused with value."

Selznick characterizes organizations as rational and expendable, as governed by rationality and discipline in contrast to what he offers as a higher form of social entity, the institution.

The institution is, in contrast, responsive, adaptive: a natural product of social needs and pressures. What Selznick means to insinuate is that the natural evolution of organizations, given "leadership," is toward becoming indispensible -- or perhaps, only, less dispensible -- maintainers of social well-being. Perrow complains (p.190, Complex Organizations) that when, in institutions, liberal idealism fails, Selznick treats this as failure of leadership. Perrow points out that institutional leaders may, in fact, infuse their organizations with values repugnant to democratic values.

Perrow's point is analytically well-taken. But Selznick's denial of leadership in sociopathic institutions may be understood as his maintaining his honorific concept, "leadership", in the face of untasty fact. The peculiar nature -- or casuistic nature, to put it, more neutrally -- of Selznick's concept of leadership is found on page 22:

"Leadership is not a familiar, everyday idea, as readily available to common sense as to social science. It is a slippery phenomenon that eludes them both."
I take this to be downright false. Every second-grader knows how to play follow-the-leader: bands, Boy Scout packs, small groups of all kinds have persons identified readily as leaders. People may, in general, find it difficult to articulate what leadership is -- aside from its being what leaders possess sometimes -- but they also find it hard to articulate what saltiness is, or discomfort. We do not therefore jump to the conclusion that saltiness or discomfort is not a familiar, everyday idea.

But, of course, Selznick is redefining the term to his own purposes. And it is this redefined concept of his which may rightly be said to be "not a familiar, everyday idea" which eludes both common sense and social science.

Leadership, writes Selznick, is

a) a kind of work done to meet social needs;

b) not equivalent to office-holding, or high prestige or decision-making;

c) dispensible (theoretically, for an institution). "An institutional leader... is primarily an expert in the promotion and protection of values." (p.28)

Condition c) proves that Selznick is not insensitive to the need for defining variables independently of the context in which they are to be found so that, in this example, institutions may be conceivable which at any given moment lack leadership.
"The idea is developed in this essay that leadership is not equally necessary in all large-scale organizations, or in any one at all times, and that it becomes dispensible as the natural processes of institutionalization become eliminated or controlled." (p.25)
But this only makes Perrow's analytical criticism the more telling: certainly leadership cannot be restricted to only those institutions whose social policies meet certain normative criteria. I reiterate the suggestion that this sudden lapse of theoretical sophistication is more aptly diagnosed as commitment to a persuasive conception of leadership.

Selznick introduces a distinction between organization and institution that relies heavily upon his failure to distinguish among different social groups and their possibly conflicting goals. Institutions come into existence as organizations become less instrumental and more infused with value as worthy in themselves of existence. But one must ask, "Less instrumental to whom?" Surely, investors who play the stock market never cease to see certain organizations as instrumental; whereas, the stock clerk or middle level manager may realize from the beginning of their employment that the company is a major component in their very way of life. One may, of course, understand this analytic failure of Selznick's as being one more symptom of the fact that he conceives his book as being directed to a very narrow audience; and it is in terms of this audience's values that he defines the organization-institution distinction.

Selznick attempts to "sell" his program by depicting institutional leadership as heroic; routine experience may be handled by organizational managers, but

"(c)ritical experience calls for leadership" (p.40); "(t)he institutional leader in his role as goal-setter must confront all of the classic questions that have plagued the study of human aspiration."(p.65)
But his heroes must fight for a kind of social justice.
"Leadership reconciles internal strivings and environmental pressures... It entails a self-assessment to discover the true commitments of the organization, as set by effective internal and external demands." (p.62, my italics).
Throughout chapter three. "The Definition of Mission and Role," Selznick invokes a subtle quasi-Darwinian thesis: only institutions which can adapt to the external polity survive. This is the point insinuated by Randall in his foreword: only "legitimate" leadership is long-term viable in our society. Such leadership is not authoritarian and thus -- by the force of his narrow social perspective - democratically, socially enhancing.

In this same chapter Selznick introduces what he indicates is a failure of leadership, the "retreat to technology" (p.74) What happens is that administration focusses excessively on ways and means, taking ends as unproblematic.

The retreat to technology occurs whenever a group evades its real commitments by paring its responsibilities, withdrawing behind a cover of technological isolation from situations that generate anxiety. This endangers the central task of goal-setting, particularly when there is a need to accomodate a technical "logic" to political conditions and aims.

It is at this point that Selznick scuttles whatever analytic clarity might be left to his argument. I submit that there is no ethically neutral (scientific?) way to distinguish the infusing with value that transforms an organization to an institution with the infusing with value that makes a "mere" means an end. i.e. finds in the technology the focus of organizational commitment. This "retreat to technology" which Selznick says is a failure of leadership is the operation of the very mechanism which he say is essence of leadership: infusion with value. This is to say, that without understanding what Selznick's own value commitments are, one cannot. distinguish analytically between that "infusion with value" that constitutes the proper function of leadership from that "infusion with value" that constitutes a retreat to technology.

The Evolution Of Organizations

Much of the theory that Selznick expounds is supportive of his ideological stipulations or derives from them. I do not find it to have general import. For example, when speaking of the "institutional embodiments of Purpose" (p.90), he comments, "... (t)here is no sharp division between the tasks of defining mission and embodying purpose. Each entails a self-assessment, an appreciation of internal pressures and external demands." Now, as attractive as I find the Socratic dictum, "Know thyself," I am not impressed that Selznick is giving me any general insight into leadership or the nature of organizations. There is some insight to be derived, however, from his comments on organizations as evolving entities.

Organizations are begun by selecting a "social base" (p.103), e.g. a market. a target, allies; by building an institutional core -- initially a rather homogeneous staff; and by formalization, which reduces the number of leadership decisions needed. Organizations go through growth stages which engender personnel crises: people suited for the earlier, creative stages of organizational formation may be less well suited to a maturer, more settled down, formalized organization. (pp.107-112)

Homogeneity and the need for centralization are inversely related (p.113). The need to educate toward a homogeneous outlook is directly related to the impediments the working situation imposes to close contact. Thus, professional training is required for institutional stability where personnel will be distanced from one another -- physically or psychologically -- on the job. (p.114) It is at this point in his exposition that Selznick develops his theory of Elite Autonomy.

An elite is any group that is responsible for the protection of a social value, an object of desire that is capable of sustaining group identity. Autonomy is a condition of independence sufficient to permit a group to work out and maintain a distinctive identity. (p.121) Selznick proposes that the maintainance of social values depends on the autonomy of elites. Which elites? Professional groups!

There would be no great harm in substituting the term "profession" or "professional group" for "elite", so long as the definition is kept in mind. Both terms have been used to designate men who carry out this basic social function." (p.1210)
This is, I suggest, an attempt by Selznick to get business and military leaders to accept a Trojan Horse into their organizations. That Trojan Horse is a professional group whose presence Selznick hopes will maintain a broader, more democratic, socially oriented perspective within the organization and resist attempts to use organizational power for either "opportunistic" or "utopian" ends. Quite early on in his book Selznick writes,
The problem of politico-military integration is set by the close interdependence of means and ends. The unfolding of military power necessarily conditions political decisions regarding the use of that power. If the development of capabilities is not adequately controlled -- and this will occur if purely military criteria are applied in the preparedness effort -- then ends will be subordinated to means, for alternative strategies will be limited by available capabilities. This is only avoided by an integration achieved in depth, that is, when political considerations reach down to influence every important area of military planning... In effect, a new institution requiring a unified political and military leadership has arisen -- the security establishment. The real problem of unification today is the creation of an organization that will strengthen this emerging institution and provide it with effective leadership. (p.79)
Selznick writes that one of the most important techniques for infusing day-to-day behavior with long run meaning and purpose is the elaboration of socially integrating myths. (p.151) This is what Selznick is ultimately about with the writing of LEADERSHIP IN ADMINISTRATION. The myth he would create is the myth of a leadership that is set, against and above a narrowly oriented organizational administration. In his own way, Selznick has undertaken to provide creative leadership for our most important social institutions.
For creative leadership, it is not the communication of a myth that counts; rather, creativity depends on having the will and the insight to see the necessity of the myth, to discover a successful formulation, and above all to create the organizational conditions that will sustain the ideals expressed. (p.151)

Selznick wrote this book in an attempt to create the organizational conditions that would sustain the ideals expressed within it. But to our post-Vietnam eyes, which have seen our Best and Brightest professionals act no differently than those organizational managers Selznick would have had them enlighten, this ideal of leadership is already considerably tarnished.

See related article: Is Moral Leadership Possible?

 

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