Leadership in Organized Anarchy From Public Administration Review

A published version of this piece appears in Public Administration Review.

Those of us drawn to the academic study of public administration have an abiding interest in the practical as well as the abstract. It’s in the nature of the field. The theoretical questions that captivate us are, paradoxically, about how to get things done. As our careers progress, we lean in one direction or another. Some shift to one end of the professional continuum — conducting research and educating practitioners. Others head directly toward management and public service. And then there are those of us who find ourselves happily perched in the middle — leading academic institutions, stretching in both directions, and drawing from theory to inform practice and from practice to inform theory.

There are days when, as a college president, the stretching seems more like being drawn and quartered.

But that challenge is what makes it worthwhile. The scope of a president’s formal authority is ill defined, contested, and bound by formal procedures. It exists alongside the formal authority of other entities, whether it is the faculty, the Board, even students or parents, or increasingly — even for private institutions — regulatory and legislative bodies. The combination of constrained formal authority and the multiplicity of values puts a high premium on the president’s use of informal powers, such as the capacity to persuade rather than dictate—a principle Richard Neustadt famously identified in his study of executive power in a constitutional democracy.

For me, the study of Public Administration provided a perspective rather than concrete lessons and principles. Leading a complex organization is both a science and an art. Embracing only the science is for those with a very low tolerance for ambiguity. In value-laden organizations, such as universities, where differences of opinion are signs of strengths not weakness, a fixation only on the neat, the tidy, the easily explained and the perfectly rational is the path to a short tenure.

Embracing only the art, however, is a sure sign of hubris. It comes from an intellectual arrogance that leadership is simply a matter of judgment, style, commonsense and intuition—qualities reserved for uniquely capable individuals, often self-identified. Those tenures seem to be equally short.

College and university presidents preside, if that word can be used, over “organized anarchies,” the phrase I first came across in a graduate seminar. To this day it is the one that most perfectly captures the unorganized qualities of the organizations we lead. It has held up well in my day-to-day work as president. Goals are shifting. The boundaries of the organization are constantly being redrawn. The referees are sometimes making up the rules as the game progresses. To shift the metaphor, we do operate in “garbage can models of organizational choice,” in which solutions chase problems and problems chase solutions. Decisions are opportunities. They come about when various problems attach themselves to various solutions in complicated, unpredictable and sometimes mysterious ways.

In that kind of setting, how we do things matters along with what we do. It is not sufficient to do only the right thing; it must also be done the right way. And one of the most challenging dilemmas any leader faces in any setting is the choice between doing the right thing the wrong way or the wrong thing the right way. Neither the science nor the art of public management can tell you exactly what to do in such situations. But together they help you understand that such situations can exist, sometimes in disguised forms, sometimes calling upon the science to reveal them and sometimes upon the art.

Early in my career when I turned my attention to the theoretical and the abstract, I focused on trust as a factor in leadership. It seemed to me public leaders often and inevitably found themselves having to exercise discretion, but still within constitutional systems of checks and balances. In systems of constrained powers when discretion was called for, how could leaders exercise power appropriately? John Locke, the British political philosopher, put it in terms of “prerogative.” Chester Barnard spoke of “zones of indifference.” I argued that the use of prerogative and the range of the zone of indifference were a direct result of the level of trust placed in a leader or a manager. The leadership dilemma in organized anarchies and garbage can models of organizational choice was a function of trust.

That was, for me, an exploration of democratic theory. It eventually became the practical, revealing itself frequently and vividly from that middle of the continuum perch as a college president.

In one of his early writings, Woodrow Wilson—the public administration scholar, who went on to be a college president, and then a real president—told the story of a Mississippi riverboat captain navigating along a fog-shrouded river, looking up a cloudless sky, and being advised by a passenger to steer by the stars he could see above. “We are not going that way,” the captain noted. “If we steer by the stars we will run aground.” The winding channels of political and academic rivers make the location of the stars only the most general guide. They can help and can even provide general direction, but the work on the ground requires another kind of knowledge and skill.

And so it is with the role of a college president.

Kenneth P. Ruscio has been president of Washington and Lee University since 2006.