03 Nov 2011

Harvard Business School Professor Paul. R. Lawrence Dies at 89

Giant in the history of organizational behavior and Harvard Business School
Professor Emeritus Paul Lawrence
Photo: Webb Chappell

BOSTON—Paul R. Lawrence, a renowned sociologist and a pivotal figure in the intellectual history of Harvard Business School who was one of the world's most influential and prolific scholars in the field of organizational behavior, died on Tuesday, Nov. 1, of prostate cancer at the Carleton-Willard retirement community in Bedford, Mass. He was 89. At the time of his death, he was the School's Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Organizational Behavior Emeritus. His research, published in 26 books and numerous articles, dealt with the human aspects of management. In particular, he studied organizational change, organization design, and the relationship between the structural characteristics of complex organizations and the technical, market, and other conditions of their immediate environment.

"Paul Lawrence was an extraordinary person in all facets of his life," said Dean Nitin Nohria. "He was a world-renowned scholar who throughout his long career reshaped our understanding of the human side of organizations. He was a beloved professor and mentor to generations of students and young scholars. Most important, he was always approachable—even humble—exemplifying in everything he did the true sense of what it means to be a teacher. I worked with him for many years as a colleague. Paul will long be remembered as a giant in the history of Harvard Business School, and he will be greatly missed by all of us who had the privilege of knowing and learning from him."

"One of the early and most important figures in organizational behavior, Paul Lawrence legitimized it as a field worthy of study at a business school," said HBS professor Michael Tushman, who holds the chair at Harvard Business School named in honor of Professor Lawrence in 1999. "He was a pioneer in creating a body of work, a cadre of students, and a doctoral program in organizational behavior that has aspired to do research that is both professionally rigorous as well as relevant to practitioners. Paul was a role model to those of us fortunate enough to be his students. He was also a role model to the field of organizational behavior. With a remarkable lifelong intensity about his research, he never let up in his quest for understanding organizations in our society. I am honored to hold the Paul R. Lawrence Professorship, a constant reminder of his role in my life as my mentor and friend. He is the standard to which we all should aspire."

When he was a teenager growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Lawrence's interest in his eventual field of study was sparked by the violent clashes between labor and management in the auto industry. "I remember thinking that there should be some way to avoid those fights," he said in a 1997 Harvard Business School interview. "I wanted to prepare myself to do something useful about these situations." The pursuit of that goal eventually led Lawrence to a Harvard MBA degree, which he received in 1947 after serving in the U.S. Navy. He then remained at the School as an instructor and a doctoral student, becoming a protegé of the legendary Professor Fritz Roethlisberger, another one of the founding fathers of the field. He earned his doctorate in commercial science in 1950.

Promoted from instructor to assistant professor in 1950, associate professor in 1956, and full professor with tenure in 1960, by the end of 1967 Lawrence had not only succeeded his retiring mentor as the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Organizational Behavior (as the chair was then called) but had published the landmark volume Organization and Environment: Managing Differentiation and Integration, coauthored with Jay W. Lorsch, now the School's Louis E. Kirstein Professor of Human Relations.

In that work, named the best management book of 1967 by the Academy of Management and cited more than 2,000 times in professional journals, the authors challenged conventional wisdom by demonstrating that there is no single recipe for organizational effectiveness. Rather, successful institutions are organized with respect to the nature of their markets and technologies. Lawrence and Lorsch showed, for example, that in the plastics industry, the more successful companies had developed highly differentiated management practices across various departments, even as they achieved tight integration, while their less effective competitors followed a more uniform approach.

"When I first met Paul, I was just a young doctoral student looking for a faculty advisor," Lorsch recalled. "I went into his office one day pretty much by chance, and that turned out to be one of the luckiest days of my life. Working on Organization and Environment, he treated me as an equal, generously shared his knowledge and experience, and was a collaborator in the true sense of that word, as we worked together to improve the organization of companies. It was the beginning of a professional relationship and friendship that lasted more than four decades."

In the ensuing years, Lawrence's research shed new light on a wide range of organizational problems relating to such issues as race relations and urban governance, health care, and the management of research and development. With sociologist Stanley Davis he wrote the definitive work on matrix organizations. His efforts with HBS professor Arthur Turner opened up an entire line of research on work teams and job design, while he was also responsible for some of the earliest systematic research on organizational change.

Lawrence's 1983 book with business historian Davis Dyer, Renewing American Industry, was timed to address the critical issue of that decade, when U.S. manufacturers were seen to have fallen behind their international competitors, especially Japan. In 1987, the advent of glasnost offered Lawrence the opportunity for another first, an inside view of industry in the then Soviet Union. "Although little was known about Soviet management practices at that time," he said in his 1997 HBS interview, "it was obvious that the magnitude of change that would have to occur as Russian industry moved toward a market economy would dwarf the change we normally study in organizational behavior."

With access never before granted to outside researchers, Lawrence and his coauthor, Charalambos Vlachoutsicos, undertook a comparative study of Soviet and American organizations. The findings they published in the 1990 book Behind the Factory Walls: Decision Making in Soviet and U.S. Enterprises provided both Russian and Western managers with a better understanding of how the other side functioned and helped pave the way toward successful joint commercial ventures.

"Paul Lawrence's legacy comprises not only his seminal writing and the large number of students he advised and guided to their doctorates, but a fundamentally different way of thinking about what constitutes good management research," said Ranjay Gulati, the School's Jaime and Josefina Chua Tiampo Professor of Business Administration and head of the Organizational Behavior Unit. "He vigorously espoused the importance of research that was ultimately centered around an important and managerially relevant problem. He believed it was the responsibility of researchers to shed light on the management issues of the time. He also demonstrated through his own work how research could bridge the proverbial divide between rigor and relevance by providing practitioners with keen insights on important problems while at the same time contributing to the development and accumulation of management theory. His work is a living testimony to how all of us in academia should aspire to bridge this gap. In addition, Paul was one of the most kindhearted and humble intellectuals I have ever encountered. He showed his consideration of others through quiet action. As a former student, I always felt great comfort in knowing that he was constantly there for me".

During the past decade, when he was well into his eighties, Lawrence dedicated himself to the development of a new unified theory of human behavior, based in large part on his close reading of the works of Charles Darwin, particularly his book The Descent of Man, a volume that Lawrence said was too often neglected by modern readers. As part of that research agenda, in 2002 he cowrote with his longtime HBS colleague Nitin Nohria Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices. In addition to Darwin, the book surveys a vast amount of literature from the natural and social sciences — from Aristotle to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson — to come up with a theory based on the premise that "four primary innate drives...are hard wired in the brains of all humans"—the drives to acquire (the instinctive push to obtain things necessary to ensure continuity and reproductive success), bond (the push to connect and relate to our fellow human beings), comprehend (human beings' need to understand the world around them) and defend (the desire to ensure that what is acquired is not lost). According to Lawrence's son, William ("Tad"), of Roslindale, Mass., "My father was a sociologist who was interested in organizations, not so much as businesses but as the central manifestation of the human cooperative venture. This was nowhere more evident than in Driven."

In 2010, Lawrence published Driven to Lead: Good, Bad, and Misguided Leadership, which examines human behavior and leadership, expands upon what he called the Renewed Darwinian Theory of Human Behavior, and illustrates how all facets of leadership – from visionary to misguided – are natural to the human condition. He believed that leadership is a trait we can apply and improve as effectively as we do technology and medicine. At the same time when the decision-making process goes awry—whether it be by dictators, corrupt politicians, or dishonest executives—the results can be devastating, from horrific wars to the decline of the world economy. When the book appeared, Dean Nohria said it provided "a powerful scientific framework, grounded in evolutionary biology, that helps us think about leadership successes and failures throughout history and how we might address humanity's need for better leadership going forward."

Commented his daughter, Anne T. Lawrence of Oakland, Calif., "Dad was intensely curious. He loved tackling a new topic and learning as much as he could about it. He read widely in many fields, including neuroscience, evolutionary theory, anthropology, and history. He saw himself as a synthesizer, someone who could draw on many fields to craft a fresh way of looking at the world." She added, "Among his very last words to me were these: 'There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.'"

Paul Roger Lawrence was born on April 26, 1922, in New Rochelle, Illinois, but grew up in Grand Rapids, when his family moved there as he was about to enter the eighth grade. "My father always had a very strong moral compass derived in large measure from his parents," explained Tad Lawrence. "He was always particularly proud of his father's selfless work as a civil servant and especially his work reorganizing banks in Michigan during the Great Depression." As a schoolboy, Lawrence quickly realized that is strong suit was academics, and he worked hard to impress his classmates, who at first teased him as a "country boy." Excelling both in class and in such extracurricular activities as debating, he began his college education at a community college in Grand Rapids, transferring after two years to Albion College, where he majored in sociology and economics with a minor in psychology and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

In the spring of 1942, just after the United States had entered World War II, he joined the U.S. Navy and was sent to Harvard Business School to train for the quartermaster corps – a set of courses for which he received credit when he returned to Harvard Business School after the war to complete the requirements for the MBA degree. Just before resuming his studies, early in the summer of 1946, Lawrence took a job working on the assembly line at Chevrolet Gear and Axle – the perfect place, he said, for an aspiring organizational behaviorist to see the workplace at the level of the factory floor. This example typified Lawrence's approach to his problem-oriented research, following the path that held the most promise, regardless of convention.

MBA in hand, he decided to pursue a PhD in sociology and arranged for an interview at the University of Chicago. "Luckily," he wrote several years ago in a blog, "my interviewer, when he learned of the training I wanted, advised me to go back to HBS and enter its brand new multidisciplinary (drawing on all the social sciences) doctoral program on human behavior in organizations. What fabulous advice! What wonderful luck!"

This multidisciplinary methodology and approach, combined with his own omnivorous curiosity, led Lawrence on a remarkable academic journey that never lost sight of practical applicability. From the Chevy production lines to the front lines of mid-size city politics (working with HBS professor emeritus John Kotter, he found that mayors' success hinged primarily on their ability to develop constructive relations with key community leaders), from the creation of Community Development Corporations to help inner city ghettos to a study of prestigious medical schools and their affiliated teaching hospitals, Lawrence blazed many new trails for those in academia and the workplace.

Beyond his groundbreaking research and publications, Lawrence's legacy lives on through the generations of students, scholars, and executives he taught and mentored during his decades on the HBS faculty. "Paul was the intellectual father of so many of us," said Linda Hill, now the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration. "His generosity was legendary. To spend time with him was to be nourished, both in mind and spirit. When I remember Paul, I will always think of his quick smile, mischievous nature, incisive questions and dogged determination to discover the truth. He was a scholar whose work changed our lives and made the world a better place."

Lawrence was particularly proud of his work with Harvard doctoral candidates (including participation on some 60 doctoral dissertation committees) and with executives in the Owner/President Management Program (OPM), the School's executive education offering for entrepreneurs. With doctoral students, he especially enjoyed giving advice on the design of their research. "The back and forth with them, where we explored creative ways to collect evidence and formulate research questions, was great intellectual fun," he said. When he retired from the active faculty in 1991, then Dean Kim Clark asked him to take on a new role as a research mentor to younger faculty.

Lawrence also pointed to the satisfaction of helping OPM participants solve pressing organizational issues. During that program, he said, "Entrepreneurs would show up in my office, spell out their problems, and we'd kick some possibilities around. Often, they'd leave saying, 'I'm going to do that!' It was gratifying to know that we had come up with something that was going to make a difference."

In addition to his teaching duties, which included 18 consecutive years leading first-year MBA classes, Lawrence served as chairman of the MBA Program, the Advanced Management Program for senior executives, and two terms as head of the Organizational Behavior Unit. He was also instrumental in planning three new required first-year MBA courses and was the author or coauthor of more than 50 case studies. He was named a Distinguished Contributor by the North American Case Research Association in 1998 in recognition of his lifelong achievement as a case writer.

Lawrence remained active as a researcher and writer until the end of his life, even as he underwent chemotherapy. Last spring, for example, he spoke about Driven to Lead at a special event at the Harvard Club of New York City before a roomful of Harvard alumni, many of them former students.

The recipient of many honors, Lawrence was a Fellow of the Academy of Management and the International Academy of Management, and he received Harvard Business School's Distinguished Service Award in 1997 in recognition of "outstanding service to the School and to the field of business education. Its recipients include the inspired teachers, scholars, and innovators who have helped shape and advance the School's educational mission" of educating leaders who make a difference in the world. He was also a founding member of the Macro Organizational Behavior Society and a member of the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics.

Lawrence's reach extended far beyond his professional life. A longtime resident of Cambridge, Mass., he, along with his wife of 63 years, Martha (Stiles), was actively involved in--indeed passionate about--community affairs, including leadership roles at the Cambridge Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports a broad range of local agencies through financial grants and technical assistance. To commemorate their community activism, in 2009 a plaque was placed near the Cambridge home where the couple resided for many years, naming the intersection of Foster and Willard Streets the "Martha Stiles and Paul R. Lawrence Square."

It is fitting that their names be linked together. Not only were they a team in their community work, but their marriage was a model to many. Lawrence's granddaughter once wrote in a letter to him that "What you have shared with Grandma is the most beautiful and pure love that I have ever seen. I cannot describe what kind of an impact it has had on me. It gives me comfort." And before work-life balance became part of the vernacular, Lawrence made family matters a top priority. "He was able to do all that he did professionally and still do all the rest exceptionally well," observed his son. "He was an exceptional father who always sought ways to support and nurture without being judgmental. One of his granddaughters described him as the most moral person I know. You are considerate, careful, and extraordinarily kind. Thank you for showing me that these qualities are essential."

In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Lawrence is survived by two siblings, Margaret Jack of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Howard C. Lawrence, Jr., of Phoenix, Ariz.; and four granddaughters.

Burial at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge will be private.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in Professor Lawrence's memory to the Cambridge Community Foundation (c/o Bob Hurlbut), 99 Bishop Allen Drive, Cambridge, MA 02139. Those who wish to share their remembrances of Professor Lawrence's life are invited to do so on his blog, www.prlawrence.com.

A memorial service will be held on Nov. 8 at 11:00 a.m. in the Story Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.


Jim Aisner

About Harvard Business School

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