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Robert Tannenbaum, 87; Pioneer in Business Leadership Theory

March 30, 2003|From a Times Staff Writer

Robert Tannenbaum, a retired professor at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management who broke ground in the study of leadership in business, has died. He was 87.

Tannenbaum died of congestive heart failure March 15 at his home in Carmel.

Along with coauthor Warren H. Schmidt, Tannenbaum came into prominence in the management field in 1973 with the publication in the Harvard Business Review of "How to Choose a Leadership Pattern." The article described a leadership continuum ranging from an autocratic manager -- "the leader makes the decision and announces it to the group" -- to a more democratic process in which employees are deeply involved in decision-making.

The article was considered a significant new way to view leadership in organizations.

"Professor Tannenbaum established UCLA as the scholarly leader among business schools in the 'human' side of management," said Samuel Culbert, a professor of management at the Anderson School and a former student of Tannenbaum, "and he generously shared his passion with me and many students and colleagues around the world."

Tannenbaum's work from the 1950s to the 1970s with Western Training Lab and the NTL Institute of Applied Behavioral Science was considered crucial to the development of modern small-group processes such as "sensitivity training" and "T-groups," Culbert said.

"He was among the pioneers who took this process out into industry," Culbert said, believing that work teams that bonded and dealt with interpersonal issues could operate more effectively than others. Tannenbaum also believed that what went on at work went home with people, and that personal growth at work could result in better relationships within families.

At the time of this work, society was changing. People of color and women were starting to deal with the barriers to their participation at work and in society, and people were questioning government.

But, Culbert said, while other people were having "happenings" at the university, "we had laboratories with one-way windows and researchers trying to identify the core elements of the group experience that had an impact on people becoming more aware of themselves and their impact on other people, and more aware of the possibilities for leading a productive life, both at home and at work. UCLA at that time was the center of gravity for the discovery and doing research on these phenomena."

Tannenbaum took early retirement from UCLA in 1977, although he continued to teach seminars there during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He also consulted and counseled executives and scholars on the dynamics of organizations and human development. And he was active in developing Pepperdine University's master's program in organization development.

Among Tannenbaum's many honors were an honorary doctorate from the Saybrook Institute, a fellowship at the NTL Institute, and life achievement awards from the Organization Development Network and the American Society for Training and Development.

Tannenbaum, who was born in Cripple Creek, Colo., got an associate arts degree from Santa Ana Junior College in 1935 and his bachelor's, master's and doctorate from the University of Chicago. During World War II, Tannenbaum served as a lieutenant in the Navy in the Pacific.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Edith; two daughters, Judith Tannenbaum of El Cerrito, Calif., and Deborah Ingebretsen of St. Paul, Minn.; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for June 29, his birthday, at the UCLA campus. For information, call Culbert at (310) 825-7784.

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