Harry J. Van Buren III
Institutions and their impact on how organizational work is carried out have been addressed from a number of perspectives, including how institutions are created (MacGuire, Hardy and Lawrence, 2004) how they are reinforced (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983), and how they are altered (Greenwood, Suddaby and Hinings, 2002). We argue that one under-developed part of understanding institutions is the role of the institutional leader.
It has been 50 years since Selznick published his seminal work Leadership in Administration. Many scholars have credited this work with ushering in discussions of institutions as “organizations infused with value.” However, not only did Selznick describe how organizations become institutions, he also described the characteristics of leaders of these organizations. After, describing what Selznick means by institution, as opposed to organization, he returns to his primary objective of describing the role of institutional leaders in this process. “Most of this essay will be devoted to identifying and analyzing the chief functions of institutional leadership (pg 22).” The institutional leader’s task is “the promotion and protection of values (pg 28)”.
By bringing institutional leadership back to the forefront of institutional analysis, we argue that institutional leadership might be the reconciliation between the first wave of institutional analysis which were more interested in a deterministic view of institutionalized action (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983) and the calls for a more agentic view of institutions (Hirsch and Lounsbury, 1997). Recently, authors have been calling attention to a middle ground of institutionalized action; institutional work (Lawrence and Suddaby, 2006). By institutional work, the concern is on how institutions maintain their status and legitimacy in the face of their own institutionalized environment. We argue that the institutional leader’s role in maintaining the legitimacy of their institutions warrants renewed attention. In his chapter in the edited volume on institutional work, Kraatz suggest that the “concept of institutional ledership would thus appear to link quite well with the more contemporary concept of institutional work…(however) this linkage remains a latent and largely undeveloped one (Kraatz, 2009: 59)”
Our goal in this paper is to examine how institutional leaders maintain the values inherent in their institution in the face of changing field-level and institutional-level pressure. After theorizing this aspect of institutional leaders, we then empirically analyze how pastors of megachurches develop and co-opt practices to maintain the values of their institution. Our main questions of interest are how what type of institutional leader will enact a specific set of discursive strategies designed to better maintain the institution they lead. We examine this question by drawing upon a case study of the rise of the “mega-church” (Thumma, 1996). As we note below, while the mega-church is not a new phenomenon, the sudden increase in the number of megachurches has had consequences for the pastors that lead these institutions. The institutional work that reflects these changes is the other main area of interest, as individuals enact a variety of practices to better connect to their growing congregations.
Institutional work is the "purposive action of individuals and organizations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions" (Lawrence and Suddaby, 2006, pg. 215). This does not refer to the processes by which institutions influence action but how institutions are reproduced, through specific, even individual, practices and processes. As these processes and practices change, they reproduce and redefine the institutional claims to an organizational field. These processes may take place purposely, as in the case of institutional entrepreneurs (DiMaggio, 1988; MacGuire, Hardy and Lawrence, 2004), may co-evolve with the institutions and supporting logics themselves (Clemens, 1993; Haveman and Rao, 1997), or may follow the introduction of logics as a response to the higher level changes that have already infiltrated the existing field (Suddaby and Greenwood, 2005). “Thus, a significant part of the promise of institutional work as a research area is to establish a broader vision of agency in relationship to institutions, one that avoids depicting actors either as “cultural dopes” trapped by institutional arrangements, or as hypermuscular institutional entrepreneurs (Lawrence, Suddaby, and Leca, 2009, pg. 1)”.
Writing about the three different types of institutional work, creating, maintaining, and disrupting, Lawrence, Suddaby and Leca argue that maintaining institutions “has received relatively little empirical or theoretical attention (2009: 8)”. Within this focus on institutional work, we are examining the actions that institutional leaders take to maintain and respond to institutional challenges. Our project addresses questions posed by institutional work researchers as they argue that institutional scholars need to examine activities as opposed to accomplishments. Specifically, Lawrence, et al. (2009) suggest that there are some neglected questions in the institutional work tradition such as “understanding which actors are more likely to engage in institutional work, what factors might support or hinder that work (independent of its success or failure), why certain actors engage in institutional work while others in similar contexts do not, and what practices constitute the range of ways in which actors work to create institutions (Lawrence, et al, 2009, pg. 10)”.
Institutional leadership: Who is doing the work
Most scholars know of Selznick’s work Leadership in Administration as providing the famous definition of institutions as organizations “infused with value.” However, this is a secondary concern with his work. Selznick’s primary objective in Leadership in Administration is to understand the behaviors and characteristics of those who lead institutions and how these behaviors are different than the behaviors of those who lead organizations. In Selznick’s own words “The argument of this essay is quite simply stated: The executive becomes a statesman as he makes the transition from administrative management to institutional leadership” (pg. 4). This leads to his discussion of institutionalization as a process; organizations become institutions over time. The degree of institutionalization depends upon the potential conflict between the leader’s goals and group’s goals; the more precise an organization’s goals and the more specialized and technical its operations, the slower the institutionalization process. Thus, to institutionalize an organization is to “infuse with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand (pg. 17).” This “infuse with value” statement is closely connected with an organization’s concern with self-maintenance (the organization’s desire to maintain its existence beyond the technical requirements of the organization).
Rao (2002) also identifies strong individuals as “evangelists” for a practice, alluding to the significance of a singular powerful actor who drives the legitimation of a practice much like a religion or ideology. Rao’s terminology most aptly signifies an important component of institutional leadership at the individual level, specifically, the strong adherence to a set of principles that drive the actions of the individual. These pieces (among others) serve to identify and construct the external version of an institutional leader – an individual who utilizes institutional supporting mechanisms and existing governance mechanisms and cognitive frameworks to alter power arrangements through explicit institutional strategies.
In a recently published dissertation, Patterson (2007) extends the idea of institutional leader as evangelists in her examination of D. D. Palmer and his efforts to establish the chiropractic medicine. She examined how Palmer created Palmer Chiropractic College, and other educational and associational organizations, to gain legitimacy for chiropractic medicine. Her work shows the link between the founding of chiropractic colleges and professional associations and the growing support and cognitive legitimacy of chiropractic medicine.Kraatz and Moore’s (2002) study examines the role of leadership migration in the institutional changes of liberal arts college education. They argued that except for a few theoretical statements about the role of leadership in institutional change and the rare empirical exception (Hirsch, 1986; Leblebici, Salancik, Copay and King, 1991), the role of leadership in institutional change has been neglected over the past 40 years. Drawing from Selznick’s statement that a critical component of institutionalization is the selection of leaders from a homogeneous pool of candidates, Kraatz and Moore examine three mechanisms of how leadership changes lead to institutional change: 1) knowledge transfer and interorganizational learning; 2) introduction of new mental models and assumptions; and 3) attenuation or replacement of institutional values (2002: 123). Kraatz and Moore find support for their hypotheses regarding the factors that allow leadership migration to impact organizational change.
Other scholars have also contributed to a better understanding of institutional leadership. In a study examining the role of CEO’s, Tengblad (2004) builds upon Selznick’s conception of the institutional leader by defining the role of the CEO as managing internal and external expectations. In a replication of work by Carlson (Carlson, 1951), Tengblad observed eight CEOs for a total of 159 days. He directly followed CEOs around for 26 days (more than 300 hours) and had the CEOs conduct self-recordings of themselves for 133 days. Tengblad focused his study on understanding how CEOs handled financial expectations. One of his key findings was the increasing use of organizational culture as a management and communication tool. “Messages about the desired state of affairs (formulate, for instance, as ‘ten commandments’, ‘cornerstones’, ‘business mission’ or ‘corporate vision’) were transmitted through booklets and brochures in most companies. During the observations, the CEOs made numerous efforts to spread these messages” (Tengblad, 2004: 592). Tengblad argued that the CEOs in his study often resorted to using the mission of the organization as a way of communicating the financial expectations. The CEOs did not just want to paint a “rosy picture” but wanted to demonstrate that they were doing all they could to improve their financial outlook. Internally, Tengblad found that the CEOs used a variety of assessments to evaluate the senior managers. These assessments created a “carrot and stick” (pg. 596) approach to managing internal expectations. Similar to Selznick’s original conclusions, Tengblad concluded that the CEOs in his study spent enormous energy in managing the external expectations of their organizations. However, this management process did not automatically lead to changes to the organization.
The role of stories and text in institutional maintenance
Selznick describes one task of institutional leadership that helps in the institutionalization process as “the elaboration of socially integrating myths (pg 151)”. These myths are used to help “infuse day-to-day behavior with long-run meaning and purpose (pg. 151)”. It is clear that institutional leaders play an active role in developing the vision and mission of the organization. However, while some scholars view the vision setting process as a strategic or organizational function (Boal and Schultz, 2007; Nutt and Backoff, 1997), from an institutional perspective, vision setting is also inherently political. Organizational visions give rise to stories, myths, and ceremonies (Meyer and Rowan, 1977) they enable the organization to remember the “good old days” or to reinforce some key values of the organization (Bolman and Deal, 2003). Gregory Berry (2001) notes, “Stories are a fundamental way through which we understand the world….By understanding the stories of organizations, we can claim partial understanding of the reasons behind visible behavior” (p. 59). As such the exchange of stories, rather than merely routines, allows participants to develop a new “collective story” through which they can become a social learning system. Stories are thus an important part of establishing internal consistency. Balancing the past, present, and future through storytelling is an essential skill for institutional leaders who hope to promote it. It is in the creating, telling, and retelling of key stories by institutional leaders that the past, the present, and the future of the organization are connected.
The enduring values, expectations, and responsibilities that maintaining coherence produces for the organization—and which are manifested in its vision—show the opportunity that institutional leadership has in defining an organization’s approach to future circumstances. Although all individual members are “coauthors” of an organization’s life story (Czarniawska, 1997, p. 14), powerful individuals, such as institutional leaders, can produce narratives for which the rest of the organization is more of a passive audience. Control over storytelling and the way members interpret an organization’s path over time allows control over the vision formation process, and should significantly influence the character and effectiveness of organizational mission. Although many individuals may possess experience relevant to the development and evaluation of past mental models of the organization, institutional leaders have a unique position from which to influence this critical feedback mechanism in the vision formation process. Leader background and experience from the past is influential in developing descriptive mental models and leader experience with those models as they confront the demands of current organizational situations influence prescriptive mental models.
An institutional leader’s own life story, thus, enters into the vision formation process along with the life story of the organization itself and its members. The requirement for coherence in both organizational and leader life stories means that a institutional leader imparts much of their own meaning and sense-making onto the organization; actions and events are interpreted through the lenses of thematic and causal coherence in the context of the histories of both the organization and the institutional leader. For example, when Jack Welch was the head of General Electric, he taught a course on Leadership and Values seven times a year to high-potential middle managers. In addition, courses were taught by the vice-chairman and the CFO. In fact, corporate leaders taught 60% of the senior-level courses, with Welch often standing in front of the group (Greiner, 2002).
In the most recent treatment of establishing a link between institutional leadership and institutional work, Kraatz proposes seven types of institutional work that institutional leaders might perform. Two of these types of work apply to our context. First, Kraatz suggest that institutional leaders engage in ongoing and highly consequential symbolic exchanges with different elements of their environment (Kraatz, 2009). Kraatz, argument is that while a study of the role of symbols is not in and of itself novel, given the heterogeneous nature of the institutional environment institutional leaders are a part of, the creation and management of these symbols become vitally important. Also, creating symbols in this context goes beyond pure a simple classification of institutional rule-following or strategic / instrumental. Institutional leaders in this context can get into as much trouble “by offering the right symbol to the wrong audienc, by sending inconsistent symbols, and / or by making a gesture that commits the organization to an unwanted course of action over the long term (Kraatz, 2009: 75)”. The second suggestion by Kraatz is that institutional leaders make value commitments in order to win trust and sustain cooperation among institutional constituencies. Here, Kraatz builds on Selznick’s suggestion that commitment is the price institutional leaders pay in exchange for trust and cooperation. Part of Selznick’s concerns with institutional leadership deals expressly with ideas of integrity and trust. “Leaders may have a genuine need to make moral and emotional displays of commitment in order to create social cohesion and solve the collective action problems that exist in such settings (Kraatz, 2009: 77)”.
Drawing from the work in institutional theory, we argue that institutional leaders perform two tasks to gain external legitimacy for their institution. First, institutional leaders use supporting mechanisms(Washington & Ventresca, 2004) that help to maintain their existence and sustain the acceptance and use of the practice. They can either create new support mechanism that are new creations in and of themselves (such as websites or blogs in the late 20th and early 21st centuries) or utilize existing mechanisms that have been proven sources of support for other perspectives or practices (such as higher education or professional or trade associations). These supporting mechanisms commonly take the form of state or normative support for particular practices. Drawing from Scott’s three pillars of institutionalism, these practices could be the development of an association, interest group, or lobbying group to impact the normative or regulative aspects of the environment
The second process recalls the major contribution of Berger and Luckman (1966) in that institutional leaders strive forwidespread social acceptance for their organization. New practices or organizational forms are often contested and surrounded by significant conflict. They can be opposed or even stigmatized by the status quo (Hudson, 2008). This aspect provides boundaries to tease apart how an organization might have established supporting mechanisms yet never gain wide-spread social acceptance (prostitution, drug use, alternative medicine and same-sex marriage would be existing examples of such institutions).
The challenge for institutional leaders in their quest to maintain legitimacy is to avoid the traps of becoming a Celebrity CEO (Rindova, Pollack, & Hayward, 2004). While institutional leader’s aims might be noble, the more successful an institutional leader, the more this person might be written about in the media and become a person of celebrity. Recent research has termed this phenomena “Celebrity CEO” (Wade, Porac, Pollack, and Graffin, 2006). While research has shown that having a celebrity CEO does provide short-term economic benefits to the firm, overtime the relationship between CEO celebrity status and firm performance is negative (Wade, Porac, Pollack, and Graffin, 2006).
Empirical Setting and Research Design
The empirical setting where on the institutional work of institutional leaders is the rise of the “mega-churches” particularly in the US but also in other countries such as South Korea and Australia. Ironically, while early institutional scholars have argued that religion would be a place (similar to law firms, schools, and health care) where institutional processes would matter most (Scott & Meyer, 1991), they have not received similar research focus as the other settings. “(F)or the most part, management researchers have stubbornly refused to engage meaningfully with religion and religious forms of organization” (Tracey, 2012: 2).
The United States is a great laboratory to study religion and religious institutions: there are numerous home-grown faiths (e.g. Christian Science, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [Mormons], Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, Seventh-Day Adventists) as well as many new immigrant religions (Warf & Winsberg, 2010). In this respect the US is quite different from other countries at a similar stage of economic development: “by almost every measure, the United States is the most religious rich nation in the world. Indeed, it is the only religious rich nation in the world…Americans are more religious than other wealthy, educated peoples because they live in a more open religious market, with more churches and great variety of religious perspectives competing for their devotion. With more options, Americans have blossomed into great consumers of religion” (Kohut & Stokes, 2006: 103). Churches in the US are for many people their most important civic organization. Churches also promote civic virtues, community and charitable service, and organizational skills such as volunteer work and fundraising experiences (Kohut & Stokes, 2006). Religious affiliation creates social connectedness and dense social networks that allow church members to develop skills and to generate social capital. This is especially important in newly created communities; here it is the case that “in the rapidly growing suburbs and exurbs in which most megachurches are located, these ties are central to many people’s overall happiness and quality of life” (Warf & Winsberg, 2010: 36). While the number of traditional/mainline churches has consistently declined since the 1960s (Pew Research Center, 2007), in that same time, the number of megachurches has grown.
“By the latest count, there are approximately 1,200 protestant churches with weekly attendance of at least 2,000 people (Thumma, 2005) and by every account these very large churches have proliferated in recent decades (Chaves, 329: 2006)”. We view megachurches as an institution in a field with other largely entrepreneurial institutions such as tent revivals, small “street corner” churches, as well as other institutions such as denominations, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), parachurch organizations, and other similar organizational types. To analyze megachurches we draw upon Selznick’s concept of organizations as institutions, as opposed to other approaches that might define institutions as a “more or less taken-for granted repetitive social behavior that is underpinned by normative systems and cognitive understandings that give meaning to social exchange and thus enable self-reproducing social order” (Greenwood, Oliver, Sahlin, & Suddaby, 2008: 4–5) or as “mechanisms of stability and social reproduction” (Suddaby & Viale, 2011: 424). We follow Selznick’s approach, as examining institutions as organizations focuses attention on what institutions do and who actually leads them. We further posit that such an approach better captures the dynamism of megachurches than alternative theoretical frames. What makes the megachurch movement even more fascinating is that while there has been a rise in the number of megachurches, overall participation in churches and the growth in the number of churches have declined since the 1960s (Pew Research Center, 2010). “In practice, these dramatically out-sized (and often wealthy) congregations represent a new aspect of religious life in the United States and are already having a profound impact on the way in which Americans worship” (Karnes, McIntosh, Morris, & Pearson-Merkowitz, 2007: 261).
In an overview of this phenomenon, Chaves (2006) offer many contending reasons for the rise of this phenomenon. They range (as one could imagine) from institutional entrepreneurs “attuned to post-1970 society and culture (339)” to changing demands of “the unchurched (337)”. While one could argue that the mega-church is not a new organizational form--there were large churches in the pre-civil war days (Chaves, 2006)—the speed at which they are developing does lead most scholars to argue that they represent a significant change to the institutional of religion; sort of a “marriage between the institutional church and the tent revival (Chaves, 2006: 340)”. One dominant explanation is that as we have become more comfortable with big box stores--Wal-Mart, Best buy, Home Depot--we have similarly come to expect church to look the same way.
In addition to the notion of the megachurch as an institution, the megachurch is also influenced by broader institutions, which in religious language are called denominations. A denomination focuses on the interpretation and production of a specific religious belief system. Affiliated congregations draw upon their denominations to create or to shape their statements of belief, which in the main are mission statements. While many can think of the typical Protestant denominations of Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, or Presbyterian, from our own research, of the 1,400 or so megachurches in the US, over 60 different denominations are represented.
Denominations are often—but not always—categorized based on a fundamentalist to liberal continuum (Smith, 1990). Smith and Faris (2005) found that denominational memberships are stratified based on socioeconomic differences, and the “socioeconomic inequality evident in the American religious system appears to be patterned by theology, race and ethnicity, and liturgical style” (102). However, denominations have often split and emerged based on other historical factors, including nineteenth-century debates about slavery (Woodbury & Smith, 1998) and the practical need to organize expansion as the United States grew geographically (Loetscher, 1963).
Our theoretical research question is why do different institutional leaders adopt some maintenance practices and not others? The specific practice that we examine is the growing and changing phenomenon of pastors of mega-churches not only writing religious books, but also writing religious books that are becoming best sellers. “With the capacity to leverage effectively the organizational resources and technological tools of our time—through educational programs, pastoral associations, and a wealth of materials (including best-sellers such as Rick Warren’s (2002) The Purpose-Driven Life)—these churches are in a position to alter the social economic, and political circumstances of the communities in with they reside” (Karnes et al, 2007: 261). We think this represents the movement of church leaders to see themselves not just as spiritual leaders, but also as organizational leaders who have life lessons for the spiritual person as well as the non-spiritual person. In addition, we believe that the extended scope for publications from mega-church pastors represents recognition of the agency inherent in organizations, but not always addressed from the perspective of religion logics (Chaves, 2006).