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December 18, 2007

Stanford organizational behavior pioneer Harold Leavitt dies at 85

Harold J. Leavitt, the Stanford Graduate School of Business professor who played a critical role in founding the academic field of organizational behavior, died Dec. 8 at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif., of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 85.

Leavitt began writing about the role of behavior in organizational success as a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was an era when researchers studied rats to understand human behavior, and organizational success was determined by analyzing numbers.

But Leavitt took a different tack. He chose to study how humans behaved in organizations, and he argued that organizational success should be judged in human, not numerical terms. His textbook—Managerial Psychology—pioneered the field of organizational behavior in business school curricula when it first appeared in 1958. It is now in its fifth edition and has been translated into 18 languages.

Managerial Psychology helped shape the field. "The fact that this was a new world was evidenced by the fact that I couldn't get a publisher," Leavitt joked in a 1986 interview. It eventually was published by University of Chicago Press. "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 lengthy academic career, Leavitt recognized the inevitability of hierarchies, maintaining that in effective organizations, hierarchies helped create successful workplaces and accomplished employees. In his last book, Top Down, published in 2005, Leavitt argued that modern organizations had not become "flatter," as pundits claimed, but rather were just new types of hierarchies. He offered middle managers suggestions about how best to negotiate their way through authoritarian mazes, while maintaining their personal integrity and even finding satisfaction in their work.

An earlier book, Hot Groups, coauthored in 1999 with his wife of 20 years Jean Lipman-Blumen, argued that effective groups helped individuals achieve personal success and contributed to effective organizations. "A hot group is just what the name implies: a lively, overachieving, dedicated group—usually small—whose members are turned on to an exciting and challenging task," they wrote. That book was translated into six languages and was named the best business book of 1999 by the Association of American Publishers.

Leavitt was the Walter Kenneth Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior, Emeritus, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business at the time of his death. He had joined the Stanford faculty in 1966, lured to the West Coast from a professorship at Carnegie Mellon University at a time when the Stanford Graduate School of Business was expanding to acquire its current international status.

Colleagues recalled Leavitt's outstanding professional and personal qualities.

"Hal was the ultimate scholar, and he had the rare quality of being interested in your research and your problems—not just his," said Robert Jaedicke, business school dean emeritus. "His advice and reactions were always helpful and on target. His open door policy welcomed a constant stream of friends—faculty, students and almost anyone who knew him."

James Van Horne, the A.P. Giannini Professor of Banking and Finance, Emeritus, who arrived at the business school just before Leavitt, described Leavitt as "a true gentleman." He recalled Leavitt propelling fellow organizational behavior faculty members forward at the business school during the 1970s, attracting stronger doctoral students, and creating more innovative courses for MBA students.

"Hal had a lively pen and a cheerful, warm, friendly personality. I will miss him," said Chuck Horngren, the Edmund Littlefield Professor of Accounting, Emeritus.

"Hal Leavitt was a great teacher and a prolific writer whose ideas shaped our thinking about managers and organizations," said Business School Dean Robert L. Joss. "We have lost a scholar and a fine colleague."

Born in Lynn, Mass., Jan. 14, 1922, Leavitt was the youngest of 11 children of Joseph and May Leavitt. He earned a bachelor of science degree from Harvard College, a master of science from Brown University, and his doctoral degree from MIT.

Leavitt's first wife, Gloria Rosenthal Leavitt, predeceased him in l985. He is survived by his widow, Jean Lipman-Blumen, of Pasadena. He also is survived by his sister Helen Fox of Hallandale, Fla., and by three children: John Leavitt, of Montreal; Emily Leavitt, of San Francisco; and David Leavitt, of Gainesville, Fla.; by three stepchildren: Lorna Blumen, of Toronto; Lesley Macherelli, of Bethesda, Md.; and Peter Blumen, of New York; by Jamie Marks and Peter Nye, both of Berkeley, Calif., whom Leavitt and his wife considered their adopted children; and nine grandchildren.

The family asks that gifts in his memory be made to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation of Chicago. A memorial service is scheduled to be held at 2 p.m. Feb. 14 in Stanford Memorial Church.


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Editor Note:

For photos of Leavitt, visit



Cathy Castillo, Stanford Graduate School of Business: (650) 721-6965;; Jonathan Rabinovitz, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-2459,


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