Leadership in administration: A sociological interpretation

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Citation: Philip Selznick (1957) Leadership in administration: A sociological interpretation.
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Leadership in administration: A sociological interpretation
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) business (RSS), organization theory (RSS), leadership (RSS), institutionalism (RSS)


Philip Selznick's book is perhaps the greatest example of institutionalism in sociology as it existed before the new institutionalism led by Meyer and Rowen (1977) in Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony and DiMaggio and Powell (1983) in The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields.

In the introduction to his book, Selznick lays out an argument about the differences between organizations and institutions and about the process of institutionalization.

Selznick argues forcefully that institutionalization is best seen as a process and, in the most famous take-away from the chapter that:

To 'institutionalize' is to infuse with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand. The prizing of social machinery beyond its technical role is largely a reflection of the unique way in which it fulfills personal and group needs.

Selznick argues that the test for infusion is expendability. In other words, will participants throw away organizational structure when it becomes less efficient? In most cases, organizations develop a concern for self-maintenance over time. In Selznick's view, organizations are expendable and designed to meet goals. Institutions have what he argues is their own value.

Selznick suggests that in studying organizations and leadership in organizations we should pay attention not only to the drive toward increased efficiency but to (for example):

  1. The creation of "administrative ideologies"
  2. The creation and protection of elites within an organization
  3. The emergence of interest-groups in struggle with each other for control.

But Selznick's topic in the book is about leadership. Selznick's core argument is clear and explicit: "The executive becomes a statesman as he makes the transition from administrative management to institutional leadership." Leadership, for Selznick, is about managing the more human dimension of institutions. He suggests in the introduction that:

  1. Leadership is work done to meet the needs of a social situation.
  2. That it is not equivalent to simply holding an office or a position of prestige or decision-making power.
  3. That it is dispensable, at least in some cases in the life and evolution of organizations.

Leader's primary role, in Selznick's account, is in providing values, institutional integrity, and how the organization will distinguish itself.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Selznick's book has been cited more than 4,200. His definition of institution (which differs importantly from the neo-institutionalist perspective, but which is connected) is perhaps the most important take-away from the book.