In times of war, the need for leadership within organizations becomes particularly important, because the decisions do not typically affect balance sheets or income statements; instead, they can result in the loss of human life, and even a change in a country’s government, if that country ends up losing a war as a result of poor decisions. The leadership that Lt. General William H. Tunner showed in the Hump and Berlin airlifts, as well as in later transport operations, showed the benefits and disadvantages of his particular leadership style. While his own personal strengths helped him manage operations effectively when he was in control, his failure to leave people behind him who could fill his shoes meant that short-term success was followed by failures, as he was not able to transmit his own personal qualities to the organization as a whole. Several leadership and management theories apply to the particular experiences of General Tunner.
Bureaucracy theory dates back to the late nineteenth century and to the work of the German sociologist Max Weber. His theory sought to establish a set of traits for organizations that would facilitate effective resource management and decision making, while advancing the goals of the organization.1 Most of the traits of a successful bureaucracy were found in Lt. General Tunner’s organization, although some of the key elements were missing. First in Weber’s theory was the fixed division of labor.2 Organizations were to be divided into clearly demarcated areas of responsibility, and each area would have its own responsibilities and rights, and those categories would not be able to change just because the organizational leader wanted it to.3 In General Tunner’s organization, while the leadership tended to be autocratic, the sections of responsibility remained clear. However, the categories of responsibility were subject to change, and sometimes changed quickly. It should be said, of course, that it is often necessary to make swift changes in war, while those same necessities may not exist with the same urgency in the business world. So having a bit more flexibility was not necessarily a negative.
Another element of Weber’s bureaucracy theory was the “hierarchy of offices.” According to this paradigm, every office is under the control of a higher office, although the lower office had the ability to appeal decisions that higher levels of the hierarchy had handed down.4 In Lt. General Tunner’s organization, of course, every station was indeed responsible to a higher station – such is the nature of military organizations. However, the right to appeal was absent, as each station was expected to follow the orders that came down to it. To be fair, there are often times in war when there is no time to request an explanation for an order; rather, it should just be followed. Also, as the commander of the operation, Lt. General Tunner had only limited accountability. This meant that, while he was accountable to his superiors for the results of the transport operations, he had autonomy when it came to decision-making. This placed one person in a considerable amount of responsibility; when he moved on, and was replaced by people who were less competent, they were much less successful with the same organization, as the Orient imbroglio demonstrated.
A third element of bureaucracy theory that is applicable here is the idea of rational-legal authority. This is the philosophical underpinning of the hierarchical system. There must be a fundamental belief, in other words, that formal systems of rules are “legal,” and that organizations have a right to designate systems of leadership.5 This is particularly necessary within a military organization, where decisions have to be considered, but also quick, in order to meet overall objectives (and avoid stunning defeat). Lt. General Tunner’s organization clearly demonstrated this belief.
My grandfather had a similar leadership style to the one that Lt. General Tunner demonstrated. He started an apple orchard back in the 1930’s about an hour from the coast of Maine, with almost 100 acres that produced a reliable crop of red apples (and cider) each year. The operation of the cider house involved the use of seasonal laborers, who would come up from the South and stay for a couple months, throughout the picking and pressing season. Grandfather had a man who would recruit workers for him each year, a foreman who would come back with a group for each season. However, that was about the only decision that Grandfather would delegate. When it came to budgeting, ordering equipment, dealing with local vendors, or any other aspect of the business, Grandfather would not let my dad or his three brothers help out in any other way besides maintaining the buildings. His theory was that he would have time to teach them when he no longer could do the work himself, but he had a heart attack a couple of days after his 77th birthday – and he was still running all of the daily operations. My dad and uncles had moved on to their own professions, and so it was left to a cousin to run the orchard. Unfortunately, he had very little business acumen, and almost no managerial skills, and it only took three years for the orchard to decline, and the family ended up selling the business.
Ritzer, George. Contemporary Sociological Theory and its Classical Roots: The Basics. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.
Saskin, Marshall and Saskin, Molly. Leadership that Matters: The Critical Factors for Making a Difference in People’s Lives and Organizations’ Success. New York: Berrett-Koehler
Swedberg, Richard and Agevall, Ola. The Max Weber Dictionary: Key Words and Central Concepts. San Francisco: Stanford University Press, 2005.
Watson, Tony. Sociology, Work and Industry. New York: Routledge, 1980.
Wilson, James. Bureaucracy. New York: Basic Books, 1989.