Leading Amidst Competing Technical and Institutional Demands: Revisiting Selznick’s Conception of Leadership

by Marya L. Besharov & Rakesh Khurana

Overview — Leadership can be greatly enriched by the insights of Philip Selznick (1919-2010), the author of landmark studies in organizational theory, the sociology of law, and public administration. His work on the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, showed that the combination of technical and institutional pressures compels even well-intentioned leaders to concede to external demands that threaten an organization's character. He further conceptualized how leaders can overcome these pressures and uphold the integrity of their organization and the institutional values it embodies. In this paper, Besharov and Khurana join with other scholars to highlight how a "Selznickian" approach contributes to contemporary research on leadership: first, by directing our attention to the role of values even in avowedly utilitarian organizations and, second, by suggesting that the protection and promotion of values is an essential task of leadership. Besharov and Khurana also focus on fundamental dualities and tensions between the institutional realm of values, culture, and politics, and the technical realm of efficiency, rationality, and administration. This paper explains how these two realms are interrelated, and articulates how leaders can uphold institutional values while simultaneously meeting technical imperatives. The authors hope the paper provides a starting point for new research on how leaders uphold institutional values in the face of often conflicting technical demands. Key concepts include:

  • Selznick generated powerful insights about the inner life of organizations.
  • He showed how character and integrity enhance an organization's technical competence, enabling it to meet the demands of external constituencies on whom it depends.
  • Even as he argued that upholding institutional integrity could enhance economic performance, Selznick made it his fundamental contention that, whether or not so doing is rewarded in the marketplace, it is the right thing for leaders to do.
  • Through their own moral development, leaders become capable of authentic performance in relations with others, Selznick suggested.

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