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Harold J. Leavitt, 1922 - 2007

Stanford professor was organizational behavior pioneer

December 19, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Harold J. Leavitt, a former Stanford University professor and pioneering author whose books helped shape the way organizational behavior is taught in business schools and its theories are implemented in the workplace, died Dec. 8 at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 85.

"He was very, very insightful and talked about issues way ahead of his time," said Homa Bahrami of the Haas School of Business at the UC Berkeley. "He was a leading edge thinker [whose] ideas have been implemented in leading business schools throughout the country and the world."

As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1940s, Leavitt began exploring the role of behavior in the success of an organization. In those days, researchers studied rats to replicate human behavior, and organizational success was determined by analyzing numbers.

But Leavitt studied human subjects and began a lifelong career arguing that organizational success should be measured in human terms, Stanford officials said.

With his 1958 textbook, "Managerial Psychology," Leavitt created a model for teaching the subject that subsequent textbook authors have continued to use, said Bahrami, who co-wrote its fifth edition.

Leavitt wrote the textbook at a time when the field itself was new.

"The fact that this was a new world was evidenced by the fact that I couldn't get a publisher," Leavitt said in a 1986 interview with Stanford Business magazine. The University of Chicago Press published the work, which was ultimately printed in 18 languages.

"The timing was right, and it flew," he recalled. "It probably did shake up the field more than most; it did catch a wave."

Throughout his decades-long career Leavitt continued to explore -- and to influence teaching in business schools. Such schools did a good job of teaching students about banking systems, financial markets and organizational structures, but they failed to teach leadership, imagination, determination and a sense of duty.

In the late 1980s, he argued that business schools inflict harm on "well-proportioned young men and women, distorting them into critters with lopsided brains, icy hearts and shrunken souls."

With his 1986 book "Corporate Pathfinders," Leavitt encouraged the development of multifaceted leaders.

He was viewed as a bridge between academia and the real world of business. He served as a consultant to many corporations and organizations, including Bell Telephone Laboratories, the Ford Foundation and Kaiser Permanante.

"Top Down: Why Hierarchies Are Here to Stay and How to Manage Them More Effectively," published in 2005, was an answer to observers who had predicted the demise of hierarchies and the rise of new forms of management. Leavitt concluded that large, top-down human hierarchies were inevitable.

They thrive because they are efficient, he wrote. Hierarchies satisfy our need for security, for a sense of identity, for "an achievement ladder to climb," for structure and for evaluation, such as the yearly performance evaluation common in offices.

"Organizational nirvana does not lie in battling against human hierarchies but rather in learning to modify them and tame them, and in helping people learn how to work effectively and meaningfully inside them," Leavitt wrote.

Leavitt was born Jan. 14, 1922, in Lynn, Mass. His mother was a housewife and his father a retail merchant. As the youngest of 11 children, Leavitt had personal experience with hierarchies and organizational behavior.

He earned a bachelor of science degree from Harvard in 1943, a master of science from Brown University in 1944 and then spent two years in the Naval Reserve as a personnel research officer at a medical field research laboratory in North Carolina. In 1949, he earned a doctorate from MIT. Beginning in 1966, he was a professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Stanford. He also served as director of the Stanford Executive Program. Leavitt retired in 1987 and moved to Pasadena.

"Hal Leavitt was a great teacher and a prolific writer whose ideas shaped our thinking about managers and organizations," said Robert L. Joss, dean of Stanford's business school. "We have lost a scholar and a fine colleague."

Leavitt is survived by his wife, Jean Lipman-Blumen; three children: John Leavitt of Montreal, Emily Leavitt of San Francisco and David Leavitt of Gainsville, Fla.; three stepchildren: Lorna Blumen of Toronto, Lesley Macherelli of Bethesda, Md., and Peter Blumen of New York; Jamie Marks and Peter Nye, both of Berkeley, whom Leavitt considered his adopted children; nine grandchildren; and a sister, Helen Fox of Hallandale, Fla. Leavitt's first wife, Gloria, died in 1985.

Memorial donations may be made to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, 1332 N. Halsted St., Suite 201, Chicago, IL 60622.

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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