Bureaucracy and Oligarchy
Why do a small number of leaders at the top make all the important organizational decisions? According to the German political sociologist Robert Michels (1949/1911). all organizations encounter the iron law of oligarchy-the tendency to become a bureaucracy ruled by the few. His central idea was that those who control bureaucracies not only wield power but also have an interest in retaining their power. Michels found that the hierarchical structures of bureaucracies and oligarchies go hand ill hand. On the one hand. power may be concentrated in the hands of a few people because rank-and-file members must inevitably delegate a certain amount of decision-making authority to their leaders. Leaders have access to information that other members do not have. and they have "clout'- which they may use to protect their own interests. On the other hand. oligarchy may result when individuals have certain outstanding qualities that make it possible for them to manage. if not control. others. The members choose to look to their leaders for direction: the leaders are strongly motivated to maintain the power and privileges that go with their leadership positions. Are there limits to the iron law of oligarchy? The leaders in most organizations do not have unlimited power. Divergent groups within a large-scale organization often compete for power. and informal networks can be used to "go behind the backs" ofleaders. In addition members routinely challenge. and sometimes _they (or the organization's governing board) remove leaders when they are not pleased with their actions.