Leadership, Life

Today, I have one question I’d like to ask you.

It’s just going to take a bit of setup to get there.

Recently I’ve begun doing some research into the works of Max Weber. Though you may not know his name, he is widely considered to be “one of the three principal architects of modern social science” (to quote Wikipedia), along with Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim.

What’s most interesting to me about Weber’s work is his focus on bureaucracy. While this certainly isn’t a sexy topic, it’s pretty safe to say that it’s a subject which affects both me and you on a daily basis. From classic examples like the DMV (*collective sigh of exasperation*), to elected or campaigning politicians (*collective eye roll*), to the TSA line at the airport (*collective groan*) to the dreaded yearly performance review at work (*one more sigh*), we are all regular victims of these systems.

This is where our friend Max comes in. He says there are three ways to organize the power/authority in a society:

  1. Charismatic,
  2. Traditional , and
  3. Legal-Rational.

They’re pretty much exactly what you think. Charismatic leaders get to lead because they are seen as charismatic or gifted. Traditional leaders are put in place because of a cultural tradition — think monarchies. Legal-Rational leaders are seen as authorities because the legal/bureaucratic system in place gives them the power and permission to do so. (For a bit more on these levels go here.) Weber saw these stages as a hierarchy of sorts, a kind of “tribe evolution”– an inevitable social growth pattern. Cultures that evolve will naturally advance from a Charismatic model towards a Legal-Rational one.

He also foresaw the negative effects of this growth: something he called “the shell as hard as steel.” A Legal-Rational model of power naturally creates something called bureaucracy, which in turn delivers an oligarchy where a few rule over the many. As this happens, it systematically generates a confining, dehumanizing society. (Sound like anything else I write about?) Also translated as “the iron cage,” this is the inescapable result of a Legal-Rational system.*

So, at long last, here’s the question:

What if there’s a #4…?

What if there’s something that’s more evolved than Legal-Rational?

I think there is, and I also think it’s on the way.


*Read more about the “iron cage” here. It’s worth your time.


3 Replies to “Bureaucracy: The Shell As Hard As Steel (& What Comes Next)”

  1. benjamin says:

    great thoughts, josh. i also believe there is something, not more evolved in the sense of a linear progression from bureaucracy, but a better model. i hope you continue this thought in a further post and i’m curious to see how you’ll describe it. i have some further thoughts but i’ll wait till you set out the next installment to share them.

    btw, though i don’t often comment, i do regularly read your blog and always enjoy the insights you offer. keep up the good work (and i mean that in the deepest sense of making work something truly good. ;)

    • Hey Ben, thanks for the comment. Means a lot that you’ve stuck with me on this journey!

      I will definitely be talking more about this in future posts. In many ways, it’s what the entire blog (and my career path) is about — discovering/creating/architecting this new 4th Option. Any thoughts you have would be most welcome!

  2. Vic Ward says:

    I’m working on a webinar for ShapingTomorrow.com on the future of work and haven’t seen one thing about the trust by managers issue. I’ve thought a lot about this problem.

    In so many ways workers are already out of sight. Temps, job sharing, home based conferencing, home offices, contract workers, etc.

    You’ve hit on one of the hardest questions — Working out of sight of the manger creates fear up and down the chain of command. Trust will it work for most organizations?

    Have you seen any approach in the reputation economy discussions that would help solve this problem?

    I have noticed that one driving force behind tomorrow’s work style is taking things from our personal life and using them to do a better job. In your opinion, is Angie’s List or the peer to peer collaboration emerging trend a guide for manager the new worker?

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