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Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Abraham Zaleznik, a well-known authority on social psychology and leadership, died Monday. He was 87.
Zaleznik, who had been a faculty member at the Business School for more than four decades, authored over 16 books and 40 articles pertaining to innovation and business leadership.
Professor Joseph L. Bower, a colleague of Zaleznik’s during his years teaching at the Business School, said that Zaleznik’s interest in the psychodynamics of leadership heavily influenced his decision to question the conventional understanding of business management as a formulaic science.
“After training for nearly ten years to become a psychoanalyst, he made a very significant impact on the treatment of management and leadership as a behavioral science through his research,” he said.
Bower added that while Zaleznik’s research was initially received with doubt by other management faculty, it has had a lasting impact on the development of business education.
“Many of his most important contributions were made in the 1950s when he worked on the development of the ideas at the basis of the field that we now call human relations,” Bower said. “Today we have an elective course in the second year that probably two thirds of students take called 'Authentic Leadership,' and many of the ideas that you find in his work show up in that course.”
During his time at the Business School, Zaleznik developed very popular elective courses in “Social Psychology of Management” and “Psychodynamics of Leadership.” Both classes sought to explain the principles of business management through case studies related to the elements of Freudian psychology and human behavior.
Born in Philadelphia in 1924, Zaleznik began his college education by working during the day and taking night classes at the University of Pennsylvania. After enlisting in the U.S. Navy, he was sent via the Navy’s V12 program, a training system for officers, to Alma College in Michigan, where he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in economics.
In 1947, he received his MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School, where he had spent some time during World War II as a member of the Midshipmen-Officers’ program.
Ira H. Zaleznik, Professor Zaleznik’s son, said that his father was well-known for his high personal standards.
“He was always committed to excellence, and he strived for excellence in his own life and wanted the best for his children and grandchildren,” he said.
Zaleznik recalled that his father often took his children along with him on his international journeys.
“He had to work and he had to teach and we got the benefit of it,” he said. There were four summers where we literally went around the world. We went on incredible travels and had incredible experiences.”
Professor Zaleznik was appointed the Business School’s first Cahners-Rabb Professor of the Social Psychology of Management in 1967 after having served as a research assistant while earning his doctorate in commercial science and a certification by the American Psychoanalytic Association in 1971 as a clinical psychoanalyst.
Zaleznik’s wife of 66 years, Elizabeth Aron, a social psychologist as well, died in 2009. He is survived by a daughter, Dori, of Newton, Mass., and a son, Ira, of Lexington, Mass.
—Staff writer Matthew M. Beck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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