What the Flint Water Crisis Can Teach Us About Leadership

As politicians, regulators, and the public struggle to account for the crisis over lead in Flint's water system, attention has focused on who was responsible. But the problems in Flint are not only about lead. They are signs of a much deeper and more pervasive problem: mounting pressure to make public agencies and nonprofit organizations more efficient and cost effective. While it may be intended to improve performance, such pressure often undermines the collective social goals these organizations are designed to preserve and protect. Now more than ever, we need leaders who do not just meet cost imperatives or create operational efficiencies. We need leaders who can do so while also upholding the human and social purposes with which they are entrusted--through policies, practices, and indeed, their own behavior.

The organizational theorist Philip Selznick warned of this challenge decades ago, in his now-classic study of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Selznick richly described how the TVA's administrative structures became co-opted by powerful landholders who worked to preserve their economic interests, subverting the agency's original purpose of supporting economic development in a historically disadvantaged area of the southern United States. The lesson? Seemingly mundane administrative arrangements, such as giving certain groups control over resource allocation decisions, can become ends in themselves, undermining an organization's true purpose.

Similar problems, of course, still exist in government agencies. Flint is just one of a growing number of cities in which concerns about costs appear to have led managers to ignore serious infrastructure problems. In Ithaca, New York, where I work as a professor at Cornell University, officials are facing mounting questions about why, after learning of elevated levels of lead in the water at local schools, they have taken no action for over 10 years.

Efficiency considerations are also creating problems at the federal level. Take the now defunct NASA space shuttle program, which suffered repeated tragedies with the 1986 crash of the space shuttle Challenger and the 2003 crash of the space shuttle Columbia. Even though space travel is a highly uncertain, experimental endeavor, NASA initially committed to an aggressive launch schedule of 50 flight per year - the number need to cover shuttle development and operations costs - in order to secure funding for the space program. Pressure to maintain this schedule led managers to downplay possible safety issues that would have delayed current or future launches. In the case of Challenger, a critical joint failed to seal during launch, allowing hot gases to leak out and ultimately destroy the shuttle, killing all seven crew members. The Columbia shuttle exploded upon re-entering the earth's atmosphere due to tile damage that had been deemed a maintenance rather than safety-of-flight issue. In their intense focus on routinizing space travel and ensuring timely launches, managers simply lost sight of the broader purpose of ensuring a safe flight.

Nonprofit organizations are affected as well. In a study of 200 nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area, researchers found that a growing emphasis on performance measurement and reporting took valuable time away from working with clients and led organizations to focus on measurable, but not necessarily meaningful outcomes. A study of liberal arts colleges found that seemingly mundane changes in how admissions and financial aid offices are structured had the effect of undermining one of the colleges' historic principles - their commitment to equal access to higher education.

Certainly, administrative changes and innovative practices borrowed from the business sector may considerably improve the cost effectiveness of government agencies and nonprofits. Some would even argue that they are necessary for survival. But they are not and must not become ends in themselves. For ailing cities that are under receivership, as Flint was, the purpose is not to make the accounting books work. It is to create a city that works.

Even successful business corporations do not focus on cost-efficiency alone. They are driven by a shared purpose. Medtronic may make medical devices, but the company's purpose is to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life. Walt Disney's purpose is not to run profitable theme parks or create blockbuster movies; it is to make people happy. Steve Jobs described Apple as "making tools for the mind that advance humankind."

These are not just slogans. Research has shown that a shared purpose motivates employees to not just comply with technical procedures or do the bare minimum that is formally required, but instead to bring their hearts and minds to the task at hand and ultimately to perform at a higher level.

After his study of the TVA, Selznick wrote about corresponding solutions. His resulting book, Leadership in Administration, primarily influenced academics, but in my research at Cornell University I have studied the implications of his ideas for leaders of public, nonprofit, and even business organizations. Most importantly, leaders must recognize the deep interconnections between an organization's purpose and its administrative structures and practices. Leaders certainly need to articulate an inspiring core purpose. But they must also enshrine it in the technical apparatus of their organization - linking those seemingly mundane policies and procedures to the organization's higher calling.

These ideas are as important today as they were sixty years ago when Selznick wrote Leadership in Administration. Administrative practices borrowed from the business sector have become seen as a powerful cure-all for ailing public and nonprofit agencies. But we must ensure they do not become ends in themselves. Instead of giving cost efficiency free reign, we need leaders who can tether such practices to the collective social purpose they are intended to protect and promote, leaders who uphold that purpose with integrity in their own behavior, and who demand the same of everyone in the organizations they are entrusted to run.

Marya Besharov is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Cornell University and a Public Voices Fellow. Her research focuses on non-profits and hybrid organizations that pursue social missions through business ventures.