The iron law of the oligarchy, dr H. Dubbelman


Countries and organizations must be governed. There are various forms of governance for this, such as a dictatorship and a democracy. There are countries and organizations that are dictatorially led. A leadership that we dislike in the West. Yet there appear to be countries in the world that cannot do without dictatorial rule, because otherwise apparently no political stability is possible. We are currently seeing examples in Iraq and Libya, where after the disappearance of their political leaders there is political chaos. In 2011, the media and experts in the West said that according to the Arab Spring a democracy would be established there.

However, the question is whether power is properly distributed in democratic countries and organizations? To provide more clarity about this, the research by sociologist Robert Michels is briefly described. He investigated how power was divided in the Social Democratic Party (as a working class party) and the unions before the 2nd World War in Germany. He assumed that equality and a fair distribution of power would be present at these organizations. The results of his research are described below as stated in the book Organizations comparative from C.J. Lammers 1991.

What were the results?

However, the results of his research were different than he had expected. He found that the outer democratic form was concealed by an oligarchic form of government (a small group of influential people who make up the service) with an almost powerless support. Michels states that all organizations of whatever nature have a tendency towards this form of government in the bud. Drivers often have more experience and expertise, which means they can protect their position. In addition, they grow their own supporters and put aside difficult critics. Michels does not doubt that people who have been given power also want to remain in power. They have become accustomed to a higher social status than they had before. Michels comes up with his iron law of the oligarchy on these acts. The law implies: The more extensive the administration of a party or other organization becomes, the more self-interest becomes a priority and the more insensitive it becomes to the interests of its members. Precisely for this the party was founded. In principle it is possible that a new (protest) party with a class of new rulers will emerge, which will then take the place of the former rulers of the previous party.

How does the iron law work?

Michels found that every group of rulers tends to grow into an oligarchic form of government and to lose contact with their supporters or the people. Democratically elected administrators, as it were, live in a "different world" and act autocratically (self-acting). This situation arises from the structure of organizations. Political parties must be organized in a democracy. If these organizations become larger and therefore more complex, the paradox is that they actually become less democratic and that leadership tends to dictatorial behavior. According to the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), power in a parliamentary democracy is present with an elite that comes from the big parties and that inevitably becomes an oligarchy. It is noted that democratization does not mean that authority and power are no longer needed. If this is not present then society will fall into anarchy and chaos. This is therefore a legitimate (legitimate) exercise of power.

Could the iron law of the oligarchy be present in church congregations?

According to Robert Michels, as we have seen, the tendency for an oligarchy is possible in every organization. So there is a chance that after a while the leadership in a church congregation will also become oligarchic. If that is the case, the leadership alienates itself from the church members and loses its legitimacy and support. The danger is that this will be at the expense of the common culture with the danger that subgroups will arise with their own "realities". It will be clear that this situation is not desired. But the question arises, which leadership style is desirable in a church church? Three recommendations for this have been selected from three sources.

1. An interview with the former president of Shell Netherlands, ir. Rein Willems and now chairman of the church council of a PKN congregation (September 2007). Ir. Rein Willems states that servant leadership is needed in a church congregation. The purpose of the church is to serve God and thereby achieve growth. Unfortunately, this is no longer a practice for many churches. We will have to find this again and that is only possible by getting people enthusiastic about it in a good vision. Rein Willems says: First of all, sit among the people and not stand above them. The second is to learn to listen and let people come into their own (interviewer Henk Jan Kamsteeg, trainer coach leadership and marketing consultant).

 2. The Protestant Church in the Netherlands - Governance and Leadership magazine of 12 August 2014 states that "leadership" is an important aspect in the structure and development of being a church. Church councils are confronted with the question “In what way do we lead?” There are major challenges for the PKN and its municipalities, which require (spiritual) leadership. Spiritual leadership is briefly summarized: serving, guiding and stimulating according to the Bible (Rev. J. Harteman in the Reformatorisch Dagblad, 27 May 2011). That this is necessary is clear from the statement of the PKN board Dr. Arjan Plaisier in the PZC of 8 September 2014, that things are not going well in the church in the Netherlands. Churches run empty, in a period of Biblical illiteracy. The question here is, how did it come to that and where did the church drop?

3. The organization consultancy firm VAVIA from Heemstede advises, among other things, in leadership styles. One of the styles is servant leadership. Servant leadership is a model where service to employees, customers and the community are central. Servant leadership is not based on power, hierarchy and status, but much more on awareness, meaning and growth of employees. This also means motivation of their behavior to achieve the goals of the organization. It is important that management itself does not forget its own behavior and sets a good example.

Summary and conclusion

The above is about the effects of the iron law of the oligarchy in organizations. It is a kind of mechanism that every organization can be infected with, according to Michels. In our time we see that symptom among the "networkers", who often appear in the media or are part of many boards and have the opportunity to promote or realize their visions.

Broadly speaking, leadership concerns two styles, oligarchy (a small group that makes up the service) and servant leadership. In practice, mixed forms of both styles can of course also occur. However, we have seen that Robert Michels warns of a camouflage structure. To the environment (externally) the organization can present itself as democratic with servant leadership. But the reality shows that an oligarchy is present internally. In addition to serving leadership, spiritual leadership applies. Dr. Arjan Plaisier outlines the difficult situation of the church in our country. Recovery is needed. Finally, the question is which style do you think is needed in the municipality and do you recognize this style?