How Max Weber’s Management Styles Might Respond-React to Change

Study in Management Classics and Change Management

This is the first of two discussions where I will take a look at aspects of “classic” or foundational management theories. This discussion is an update/revision of a paper I wrote while working on my doctorate in business administration and management in which I am examining, briefly, theories of Max Weber. I have added a new component looking at how styles of management based on his theories might respond to societal/technological change.

“Max” Weber, born Maximilian Karl Emil Weber, was a German academic (he taught prior to and during World War I), as well as a sociologist, political economist, and philosopher. Born in 1864, he died in 1920, and his work greatly influenced political and social theory and research, as well as the discipline of sociology and how it is practiced in America. He provided a “bureaucratic” perspective in the development of classical business management theory, believing organizations should be run using comprehensive and detailed operating procedures. He believed bureaucracy could solve what he saw as shortcomings of traditional management operating practices.

Power vs. Authority

Weber believed that management of people is directly related to the authority structure of an organization. He felt there should be distinctions made between the words power and authority. Power he saw as a negative word which he described as “the ability to force people to obey, regardless of resistance.” Authority, on the other hand, he saw as a positive word, describing it as “where orders are voluntarily obeyed by those receiving them.” Weber felt that the exercise of authority depends on the quality of the leader, and that when leadership is positive and strong, subordinates see orders as legitimate.

Often used for the theoretical evaluation of management styles, Weber identified three primary leader/authority types: Charismatic, traditional and rational-legal. The charismatic leader he described as one possessing personality traits that set him (and I’m adding “or her”) apart from the ordinary or average individual. Weber saw this management type as someone having “supernatural” or “superhuman” personal traits that could allow him (or her) stand tall above others. This style of management, according to Weber, is unstable because it does not provide a permanent authority structure.

The “Charismatic” Leader

Charismatic leaders are often found in religious and political circles. They are people who are able, based heavily on the “charisma” of their personalities as leaders, to influence others deeply and to create followers who trust and believe in them, wholeheartedly. A few well-known charismatic leaders who might fit Weber’s description of the charismatic leader are men such as Lee Iacoca and Martin Luther King.

During times of social upheaval and change, or times when organizational, environmental, or even technological change is greatly affecting business management/practices, “extraordinary” leadership is sometimes called for. At times such as these, charismatic leaders are often able to step in and make great contributions to management. And, while many great leaders have been able to use their charisma as leaders to make great contributions to society, in the world of business management, the charismatic leadership style has some obvious built-in problems.

One major problem is that it depends, perhaps too much, on one person. When a drastic change occurs, such as the passing away of the leader, there is often much confusion over who will replace him or her since there is usually not a structure in place to name a successor for a leader of this type. There are often skirmishes for power in the aftermath of the leader’s departure, that can result in short- and long-term damage to the functioning of the organization. After all, things have been run, for the most part, based on the preferences of a successful leader. When that leader is no longer there, there may not be anyone left in the organization who feels capable of the same brand of leadership, and that can lead to organizational chaos and power struggles until the organization “evolves” and it is realized that a more stable management structure is necessary.

The “Traditional” Leader

The next type of leadership authority I will discuss is the “traditional” style. Weber described this style of leadership as authority gained through a custom that places an individual in a leadership position based on the status of inheritance. Tradition itself, usually based solely on birth, custom, or precedent (i.e., things have always been done that way), is what gives legitimacy to this type of authority. Feudal systems (where ownership of land, as well as governmental, social, legal, and military obligations, depended on the relationship between a lord/king, vassals/military, and serfs/peasants), such as the British royal tradition, provide a good example of this Weberian concept.

Feudal systems had material-based economies that were organized according to customary rights and duties. Such systems provided the basis by which the upper classes, the “nobility,” maintained control over the lower classes. Although Weber’s theory was based on his study of history, there are companies today that are still run using a similar system of authority/leadership. These are mostly privately held companies where leadership is selected based on heredity, rather than on competency. In these companies, management authority is inherited, whether or not it is merited. In these “dynastic” companies, management appointments are more often based on family/bloodline, rather than on competence.

It should be obvious that the traditional style of leadership will encounter problems when environmental changes occur if the leader is not skillful enough to guide the organization. The fast-paced, fiercely competitive world of business does not leave much time for on-the-job training/apprenticeship for the highest echelons of management. Most organizations/businesses require top managers who, through education or experience, have proven they possess the judgment, knowledge, skills, and reasoning abilities that are required to make good decisions. In the world of business today, it can be fatal for a company to fail to see that it is their own tradition-based management system that is either causing or that is simply not capable of providing solutions to problems.

The “Rational-Legal” Leader

Weber, in his search for a sustainable form of authority/leadership, looked at the idea of a style based on rational and legal analysis that would solve many of the problems created by the traditional style. Weber described a “rational-legal” style of leadership, which is what bureaucratic organizations are founded upon. This style of authority is mechanistic in its approach to running/managing the organization based on a system of rules, and leaders are selected based on guidelines and procedures. In bureaucratically run businesses/organizations, based on procedures, goals are set and roles and responsibilities are performed as they are needed. Rules and procedures are the key to the Weberian rational-legal system. In theory, this type of system runs like a well-oiled machine, but in modern culture even the word “bureaucracy” is synonymous with organizational inefficiency.

Believing this style to be the most efficient form of organizational management, Weber even provided a detailed description of how he saw rational-legal authority working:

  • The rational-legal management system is structured around official functions.
  • The official functions are bound by rules.
  • Each area/function has its own specified area of competence.
  • Functions are organized by a systemic hierarchy with each function following a prescribed set of technical rules and procedures.
  • Employee training is provided for each functional area.
  • Organizational administration is physically separated from the means of production.
  • Organizational rules/policies, as well as decision-making and actions taken by the administration are recorded in writing.

Weber saw bureaucracy as providing a way to conduct business/organizational efficiency within a structured, sustainable system. He saw the system as providing precision, knowledge, stability, caution, agreement, and management/subordinate relationships designed to reduce friction. It seems workable, so why doesn’t it always work?

During times of change, one reason the rational-legal, “bureaucratic” organization does not work well is that it tends to depersonalize tasks to the point where the individual is not considered, only the task, thereby requiring all individuals to be the same. A big problem with such reasoning is that individuals are not all the same, and this type of authority essentially turns people into various parts of a machine. Efficient bureaucracies work best with emotional detachment, and are great at excluding anything that is personal, irrational, or inestimable. The problem is, in today’s ever-increasing, ever-broadening rate of change, uncertainty rules the day. That can render as useless and leave as remnants of “maladjustment” preferences dictated by the “efficient” bureaucracy.

In addition, bureaucratic management tends to rely on systems which have been in place for a long time, without being reevaluated for their need. The pace of change in the world of business requires constant reevaluation of systems. Systematic coordination and control of tasks and roles is the ultimate aim of the organization using the bureaucratic approach to management, and a type of leadership does not respond well to change. It is often characterized by archaic structures and rules that can become so confining and constricting, organizations are not able to make decisions quickly enough to keep up with the pace of societal/technological change.

In conclusion, as a social scientist, Weber did not set out to have the type of influence on business management that his research has had. And while many aspects of his bureaucratic, rational-legal brand of leadership authority has certainly outlived usefulness, in business management there will most likely always be a prevailing need for order, policies and procedures, and for management authority that is based on levels of leadership with internal controls and reporting structures. The challenge for today’s leaders is to develop systems combining and integrating useful features of the rational-legal bureaucratic style, with adaptable, nimble, people-oriented, “change-friendly,” and visionary management styles.