01 Dec 2011

Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Abraham Zaleznik Dead at 87

Pioneer in the study of leadership applied psychoanalytic techniques to the workplace
Professor Emeritus Abraham
Photo: Baker Library Historical Collections

BOSTON—Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Abraham Zaleznik, a renowned authority on leadership and social psychology, died in Boston on Monday, Nov. 28, at the age of 87. At the time of his death, he was the School's Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership.

As a member of the Harvard Business School faculty for more than four decades, Zaleznik made important and lasting contributions as an innovative, prolific, and distinguished scholar, researcher, teacher, course developer, and author of 16 books and more than 40 articles. Eager to gain a deeper understanding of the internal forces motivating people in the workplace, during the 1960s, he combined has duties as an HBS faculty member with nearly a decade of study at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, an effort that led not only to 20 years of practice in the Boston community but to an honor rare for those without a medical degree—certification by the American Psychoanalytic Association in 1971 as a clinical psychoanalyst.

In all his roles, Zaleznik was never reluctant to go against the grain of conventional wisdom in order to nurture new ideas and perspectives. In a 1977 Harvard Business Review article, which later won the McKinsey Award for the best article published in the magazine that year, he first posed the question "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" Bringing his unique insights as a psychoanalyst to bear on the world of business and taking into account various considerations, including life experiences and degrees of talent, vision, and imagination, Zaleznik answered resoundingly in the affirmative. Among their other distinguishing characteristics, he wrote, "Leaders...develop fresh approaches to longstanding problems." Rather than focusing on structure and process, he said, leaders concentrate instead on developing ideas and vision. "Leaders are active instead of reactive, shaping ideas instead of responding to them."

Zaleznik's analysis was so out of keeping with the common belief at the time that managers and leaders were one and the same that it evoked cries of disbelief from businesspeople and academicians alike. In the years since then, however, the wisdom of Zaleznik's words has won acceptance, as companies scramble to fill their ranks with change agents.

In 1989, the publication of the book The Managerial Mystique: Rediscovering Leadership in Business further solidified Zaleznik's position as the founding father of business leadership studies. He drew upon the psychologist William James's concept of once-born and twice-born personalities to conclude that while leaders are made, not born, they have the common experience of working through traumatic episodes in their lives. "Managers perceive life as a steady progression of positive events," Zaleznik wrote in this volume, a powerful challenge to the rise of an American managerial class dedicated to maintaining order and efficiency. "Leaders are 'twice-born' individuals who endure major events that lead to a sense of separateness...from their environments," he continued. "That sense of separateness may be a necessary condition for their ability to lead."

In his many years at Harvard Business School, Zaleznik also proved himself accomplished in the classroom, developing a popular elective known first as the Social Psychology of Management and then the Psychodynamics of Leadership. Designed to give students an overview of Freudian psychology and an understanding of human behavior—or "psychological intelligence," as he put it—the course was an eclectic combination of case studies, biography, film, and literature. After a thorough grounding in the basic concepts of psychoanalysis, students considered such topics as "Power and Dependency in Organizations" and "Organizations in Crisis." Examining the lives of leaders from the past, they delved into biographical accounts of the likes of Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and General George Patton.

The course drew rave reviews, including an article in the Boston Globe's Sunday magazine. "At Harvard Business School," the story said, "Abraham Zaleznik teaches students to look beyond profit margins and into what makes people tick." It goes on to describe him, quite rightly, as "a trim, soft-spoken man, impeccably dressed." Beyond the MBA curriculum, he also developed an outstanding doctoral program for those who wanted to follow his lead in analyzing businesses and businesspeople. Among his students were Anne Jardim, former dean of the Simmons College Graduate School of Management, and Manfred Kets de Vries of INSEAD, the European Institute of Business Administration near Paris.

Abraham Zaleznik was born on Jan. 30, 1924, in Philadelphia, where his father owned a store that sold fruits and vegetables. He began his college education by working during the day and taking evening classes at the University of Pennsylvania. After enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1942 and going through boot camp and further training, he was sent via the Navy's V12 program to Alma College in Michigan, where he "loaded up" on a wide array of courses and was awarded an economics degree in 1945, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.

In 1947, he received his MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School, where he had spent some time during the war as a member of the Midshipmen-Officers' program, one of the School's war-time military programs. Degree in hand, he served as a research assistant while earning his doctorate in commercial science. "As an R.A., I learned how to interview, observe, and write," he said in a 1996 Harvard Business School interview. "In addition, as I became enthralled by research, I understood the importance of separating fact from inference."

An intense interest in developing explanatory theory from interviews and observations in the field made Zaleznik one of the School's most productive researchers. But as his work progressed, a fascination with the work of Sigmund Freud and with finding the "internal" keys to unlocking the secrets of motivation in the workplace led him to the study of psychoanalysis.

By 1958 Zaleznik's discontent with the accepted ideas behind the teaching and study of human relations had crystallized with the publication of a coauthored book titled The Motivation, Productivity, and Satisfaction of Workers: A Prediction Study. "Based on research in a nearby factory, that study established models for predicting group behavior," Zaleznik explained in the 1996 HBS interview. "But it became evident that a powerful force affected all the seemingly disparate reactions of the workers to life around them. Underlying their behavior was a need to protect themselves from, and achieve a measure of control over, authority figures in the factory, community, and society." As Zaleznik came to understand, these unconscious and preconscious motives were in play long before these employees entered the factory. It seemed possible, he thought, that a deep understanding of unconscious motivation might bring forth ideas about how rational leadership could overcome many of the irrational forces determining behavior in the workplace. It was that insight that led Zaleznik to enroll in the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute in 1960.

Appointed the School's first Cahners-Rabb Professor of the Social Psychology of Management (as the chair was then called) in 1967, Zaleznik also found support for his work from an executive whose life epitomized corporate leadership. With his HBS colleague Professor C. Roland Christensen, he traveled to Japan in 1981 to discuss his teaching and research with Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company. A short time later, the firm established a chair in leadership at Harvard Business School. The first professorship endowed by a Japanese company at an American university, it was held by Zaleznik until his retirement from the active faculty in 1990. He received the School's Distinguished Service Award in 1996 in recognition of outstanding service to HBS and the field of business education.

Zaleznik served on a number of corporate boards, including the King Ranch (where he was chairman for a number of years) Ogden Corp. (where he was vice chairman), Timberland, and American Greetings. He also consulted to the U.S. government and many businesses.

In retirement, he continued to write, consult, and serve as a director, splitting his time between the city of Boston (where he had moved after residing for many years in the suburb of Lexington, Mass.)and a winter home in Palm Beach, Florida.

Zaleznik's wife of 66 years, Elizabeth (Aron), a social psychologist and administrator, died in 2009. Four siblings predeceased him as well. He is survived by a daughter, Dori, of Newton, Mass., and a son, Ira, of Lexington.

The funeral will take place today at 11 a.m. at Temple Isaiah, 55 Lincoln St., in Lexington. Following interment at Westview Cemetery, shiva will be held at 25 Sky View Circle in Newton through 8 p.m. today and on Sunday, Dec. 4, from 4-8 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Professor Zaleznik's memory can be made to a charity of one's choice.

No decision has been made at this point regarding a memorial service.


Jim Aisner

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.