Leadership Emerging

Leadership Emerging / October 2006

Summary “Ideas as Art”

The HBR Interview with James G. March, Harvard Business Review, 84, 10, October 2006, pp. 83-89.

When I was a graduate student at Berkeley during the 1960s among the names of important contributors to organization theory was James G. March, along with others such as Peter Drucker, Herbert A. Simon, Wes Churchman and a few others. He has published a number of significant books beginning with Organizations (co-authored with Herbert A Simon) and A Behavioral Theory of the Firm (co-authored with Richard M. Cyert). His works on leadership include Leadership and Ambiguity (with Michael C, Cohen), which focuses on American college presidents and On Leadership (with Thierry Weil) in which he discusses leadership in the context of the great literature. The later is a theme picked up in this interview.

Building on the importance of modeling as an art form in the study of organizations and leadership, March cites his Introduction to  Models in the Social Sciences (co-authored with Charles Lave) the conversation quickly turns to March’s course at Stanford University and the following sequence of Q&A:

Q: “Leadership has become a big concern and a big industry in recent years. What is happening in leadership research?

A: “I doubt that ‘leadership’ is a useful concept for serious scholarship. The idea of leadership is imposed on our interpretation of history by our human myths, or by the way we think that history is supposed to be described. As a result, the fact that people talk about leaders and attribute importance to them is neither surprising nor informative. Although there is good work on several aspects of asymmetric relations in life, broad assertions about leadership are more characteristic of amateurs than of professionals. Unless and until a link to significant scholarship can be made, the thinking on leadership will produce more articles in popular journals than in professional ones, more homilies and tautologies than powerful ideas. In the meantime, in order for leadership scholarship to generate some good ideas, it needs to build buffers to protect itself from the temptations of immediate relevance.

Q: “What kinds of questions do you think are important for leaders?

A: “In my course on leadership and literature, I ended up with a list of about ten topics—for example, power, domination, and subordination; ambiguity and coherence; gender and sexuality; the relation between private and public lives. Not a unique list, and hardly a complete one. Each of the topics can draw illumination from social science, but I think they often are more profoundly considered in great literature…”

Not only through the study of literature but other topics such as learning, innovation, decision making and information processing March has modeled a multidisciplinary approach to his work with a focus on the cognitive aspects of organizations, broadly defined. He offers his hot stove effect theory of learning borrowed from Mark Trwain: “Twain said that if a cat ever jumps on a hot stove, he will never jump on a hot stove again. And that’s good. But he will also never jump on a cold stove again—and that may not be good.” In effect, our earlier learning may inhibit our continued learning.

March also stresses the importance of value systems in understanding and improving behavior. This relates to the importance of combining analysis with foolishness, that is, our not relying on assumptions based on the past or narrow data sets, but including information from other fields, alternative sources and different perspectives. In the remainder of the interview he demonstrates his fresh thinking in considering foolishness in business education, the garbage can theory of organizations and the increased role of women in organizations. He closes his courses often with a quote from Etienne Pivert de Senancour, a French writer.

It translates as,
“Man is perishable. That may be; but let us perish resisting, and, if nothingness is what awaits us, let us not act in such a way that it would be a just fate.”