An earlier version of this essay appears in the Winter 2008 of educational Horizons

the Grand Inquisitor Syndrome and Morality in Rank-Based Organizations

©2007 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.


I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people
by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.
-- James Madison (1751 - 1836) Speech in the Virginia Convention 6/16/1788

edited 10/24/13

The Grand Inquisitor

Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alyosha a parable: Christ comes back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. He is adored by the people but arrested by Inquisition leaders and condemned to the stake. The Grand Inquisitor, visiting in his cell, remonstrates with Jesus, "Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou had'st said of old. Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us?"[1]

The Grand Inquisitor explains to his Son of God why His return interferes with the Church's mission: in the Bible is told how Jesus rejected three temptations offered him by Satan in favor of freedom (Matthew 4: 1 - 11). But Jesus, the Inquisitor's own Omniscient, Eternal God, has misjudged human nature! "Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?" The Grand Inquisitor rejects that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom given them. Without the guidance of the Inquisitor and his kind the majority of humanity are denied redemption and doomed to suffer.

The Inquisitor has dedicated himself, he continues, to protecting a generally feckless humanity from the suffering of having to make a choice.[2] Those few who are strong enough to exercise freedom will guide those who eschew it -- most likely to death and destruction. However, that multitude will, at least, be happy along the way.[3]

Honor Killing: the supremacy of local mores

The Grand Inquisitor's pessimism that people are not up to the demands of their religion seems to be supported by the practice of honor killing. Honor killing is inflicted on a person, most frequently a woman, who is perceived as having "dishonored" her family. Unlike a crime of passion, it is it is usually planned in advance and perpetrated by the victim's own family. In societies where they are common, the courts rarely become involved. Such killings are regarded as a "private matter" for only the affected family. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that the annual worldwide total of honor-killing victims may be as high as five thousand women.[4]

Although the perpetrators of honor killing often invoke religion to justify their acts, religious authorities tend to see the motivation as social, an often very local custom, apparently reinforcing local structures of authority, which survives despite contrary opinion by broader religious authority.[5]

But we ought not imagine that those inflicting death for the sake of honor do so lightly. Honor killing is only an extreme example of acting in the face of conflicting authority, e.g. custom vs. religion.[6] Educators know well that custom, profession, school building procedures, district board, State legislature and Federal Government make competing claims to one's ethics. One's virtues clash not infrequently with one's duties. When this happens, educators confronting a decision not infrequently make on the spot, possibly illegal, choices that address the most cogent issues.[7]

Underreported violence

In the School District of Philadelphia a school nurse filed suit in federal court alleging that the district and his former principal retaliated after he complained that his school was underreporting violent incidents. The official tallies of violent incidents submitted as law requires were substantially lower than the nurse's records of students treated as the result of violent attacks.[8]

School reporting of violent incidents, generally assumed to be accurate, is dismaying as it is. For example, in 2003, five percent of students ages twelve to eighteen reported being victims of nonfatal crimes. Four percent reported being victims of theft; and, one percent reported being victims of violent incidents.[9]

In our society most adults are aware that real estate values are greatly affected by perceptions of public school quality. If they find themselves in a role which gives preference to those who avoid "rocking the boat" rather than those who engage problems, we can reasonably assume that mandated reports, whether on violence, or school progress, will be effectively sabotaged.[10]

The Institutional Dynamics of Abuse

Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. -- Lord Acton

Phillip Zimbardo, in The Lucifer Effect, describes how institutional constraints bring the most morally upright people to behave in abusive, "uncharacteristic" ways. In 1971, as professor of psychology at Stanford University, he conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. In a mock prison located in the basement of the psychology building, twenty-four normal college students were randomly assigned to be "prisoners" or "guards." Under minor pressure from their "warden," (Zimbardo) the "guards" quickly and inventively became abusive and sadistic. The "prisoners", who could have walked out at any time, showed extreme passivity and depression and put up with the abuse.

The "guards" merely thought themselves to be "doing their jobs." The "prisoners" quickly came to see themselves as "helpless." Until a consultant to the project strongly condemned it, Zimbardo, the "warden," did not comprehend the abuse he was indirectly causing, understanding it to be the voluntary behavior of students under contract to participate.[11]

Is Lord Acton's famous saying true? Does power tend to corrupt? How exactly does this happen? According to Kenwyn K. Smith, power does so by changing our perceptions of the people over whom we have power or who have power over us. This tempts us to deal with them in ways that may undermine both our personal and our common values.

An interesting set of studies by Smith supports Zimbardo's work. Where organizations are monocratic, i.e. power is concentrated rather than distributed, certain ways of perceiving subordinate or superior groups develop. These fixed ways of perceiving others, which Smith calls "encasements", generate problems for each of the groups in an organization.

If we consider a monocratic organization as comprised of three groups, powerholders, implementers and lowers,[12] we can map out the relationships between them. Powerholders control resources, money, influence, police power. Implementers attempt to adjust the directives of the powerholders to the realities of the situation to which their directives are addressed. "Lowers" are those left in the organization, subject to the will of the powerholders, and the administrations of the implementers, lacking power of their own. Smith found that these three groups had different ways of perceiving themselves and others. They also used handled conflicts in characteristically different ways.

If we look at schools, we find that the monocratic relationships of powerholder-implementer-lower are relative. They depend upon whom we are focusing on. In the school building, a principal may be a powerholder, whereas at a board meeting he may be a "lower." In a small New England town Smith found that the relative position of different parties in a monocratic relationship depended upon the parties in question. The parties considered were: the Public, Local Politicians, Board of Education, Superintendent, Principals, Teachers, and Students

Smith focused on the Board of Education, the Superintendent and the Principals and found that each filled the role of powerholder, implementer and lower with respect to someone else. Chart 1 shows the relationships.

The Relativity of Power

Adapted from Kenwyn K. Smith Groups in Conflict 1982






Board of Education




Board of Education




Board of Education






Board of Education




Board of Education










Board of Education



Chart 1.

If we focus on the principals we can see that they are powerholders in relation to the teachers, who are implementers, and the students, who are lowers. The principals are implementers in relation to the superintendent, who is a powerholder, and the teachers, who are implementers. The principal is a lower in relationship to the Board of Education, who are powerholders, and the superintendent, who is an implementer.

The warning in Smith's research is that when monocratic relationships stabilize, they "encase", that is, imprison, the perceptions of particular groups in a pathological manner. It is important, then, that persons have the opportunity to play each role, so as to reduce the possibility of strong encasement. Otherwise the pathologies described next become engrained

Pathologies of Power

Persons, who, in our society, hold relatively stable power positions are most likely to exhibit the pathologies that visit grief on the others. According to Smith, powerholders tend to have little insight into the consequences of their own behavior on other people. They are pessimistic about the competency of other groups and tend to delegate responsibility but not sufficient resources. They also tend to withhold information to create dependencies in other groups upon them, the powerholders. They react to conflict with other groups by being punitive, assertive and withholding resources. Within their own group, however, they tend to ignore conflict and tolerate dissidence. Those most charismatic among them dominate.

In contrast, implementers find themselves caught up in the need to relate to both powerholders and lowers. They tend to be optimistic and systemic thinkers who base their decisions in moral and ethical frameworks. They are information sharers and brokers. But faced with conflict from other groups they become disoriented, indecisive and impotent. Within their own ranks they handle conflict by seeking common understandings, employing what they believe are effective techniques of conflict resolution. (Like Zimbardo, the irony in Smith's research came with his realization that as a researcher he was not someone external to these encasements. He was, willy-nilly, by virtue of his interests and pursuits, an implementer.[13])

Lacking power, lowers suffer from yet another encasement. They are caught up in behavior that maintains group protection and unity. They may give the appearance to others that they "just don't care." They are suspicious of implementers and power-holders and adopt a reactive attitude toward them. Like power-holders they withhold information, but being unable to create dependency, they do it to preserve group unity. They handle conflict from without by increasing cohesion and committing to group unity and from within by suppression of dissent.

Chart 2 summarizes and compares the particulars of monocratic power relationships.

Monocratic Relationships Among Role Groups

Adapted from Kenwyn K. Smith Groups in Conflict 1982




Encasements (Constraints on Perception)

No insight into consequences of own behavior

Caught up in need to relate to both other groups

Caught up in unity and protection devices; –don't care.”


See other groups as less competent. Pessimistic.

 Systemic Thinkers. Optimistic.

See others as manipulative and self-serving.

Delegate responsibility but not resources.

Use moral and ethical frameworks.

Reactive Posture

Use of Information

Withhold information to create dependency.

Information sharers and brokers.

Withhold information to preserve unity.

Handles External Conflict by

Being punitive, assertive; withholding resources.

Becoming disoriented, indecisive, impotent.

Increase cohesion. Commit to group unity.

Handles Internal Conflict by

Ignoring it. Charismatics rule. Dissidents tolerated.

Seek common understandings. Believe in techniques.

Suppression of minority viewpoints.

Chart 2.

The Heroic Leader: necessarily morally deficient

Long ago John Dewey argued that democracy perfected itself the more its members communicated freely with one another. This jibes with Smith's and Zimbardo's take on what it is that brings people to mistreat others: communicating on a "need to know" basis. Those who arrogate knowledge to themselves, who believe they have the right to define other people's needs, see them as mere tools to serve either the personal ends of the arrogators; or, more important, to serve what they understand to be their organization's mission.

Clear examples of encasement can be found in school governors who remain far from the front lines where school personnel interact with students. Why else would the myriad disincentives that students and school personnel suffer be visited upon them? (And there are recent examples of soldiers committed to battle without the necessary equipment to protect them from minor resistance.) A vast body of experience and literature gives witness to the ubiquity of the hopeless mission and the arrogance of power -- consider the following allusions: the Children's Crusade, the Light Brigade, Gallipoli, a Bridge Too Far, Pelilieu. Others come easily to mind.

In Kenwyn Smith's terms, The Grand Inquisitor, the Honor Killer, and Zimbardo's Prison Guard are implementers. But they demonstrate something more than encasement. They have made themselves, in a sense, powerholders by default, taking command when those superiors who gave them a mission but with insufficient resources have lost interest in the day-to-day dilemmas, they, as Implementers, must face. Though not the highest ranked in the hierarchy they profess to honor, the lack of challenge from their colleagues enables them to usurp ultimate practical authority.

The Grand Inquisitor and the Prison Guard, in particular, are "heroic leaders;" that is, not mere administrators, figureheads or apparatchiks, but persons who "take charge" and use the organization they are part of as an instrument of their will. The image of heroic leader is a powerful one in our culture. Heroic leaders are, admirably, not content to sit by silently and yield hostages to fortune. When ostensible powerholders shrink from decision, "heroic leaders" take charge. Their will, in effect, becomes the group's will. However, they take charge and not infrequently inflict catastrophe on their own account.

There is a conundrum to be faced here.[14] An organization is morally deficient unless the moral judgment of all actors is available to evaluate and determine each actor's behavior. But unless the moral judgment of the other members of the organization is constrained or lacking, the leader's decisions could not command the organization's behavior. A leader would not be a "heroic" leader if he or she yielded to resistance from within the organization which stultified the leader's will. But only a morally defective organization would permit a leader to operate without constraint, i.e. be a "heroic leader."

Zimbardo reiterates throughout his book that we tend to rely to heavily on "character" and supposed "character training" to ward off evil. Many believe that courses in ethics will ward off the worst of institutional evils. But specific context, not theory, makes all the difference: exigency can ensnare the noblest among us. As My Lai and Abu Ghraib have demonstrated to us inhabitants of the New Jerusalem, our comrades do evil not only through the disregard of those who command them, but also with the complicity of their "righteous" confreres. Heroic behavior is morally suspect if only because in occurs in the context of morally deficient organizations. And not infrequently, the leader's impulse is itself, less than morally pristine.

Subjugation: the costs of rank-based authority

Smith suggests that pathological encasements can be ameliorated if people have the opportunity to function at different levels of social structure, even though social structures be monocratic. (See Chart 1, above.)[15] However, this consideration does not address the issue of the possibility of moral leadership. A related but somewhat different perspective is offered by Jeffrey S . Nielsen in The Myth of Leadership. Nielsen characterizes organizations along a spectrum that ranges from rank-based to peer-based. [16] Nielsen sees rank-based organizations, in Smith's terms, as encased monocratic organizations. That is, the relationships of rank, powerholder, implementer, and lower, are relatively frozen and impermeable. (See Chart 2 above.) Furthermore, there is a bias in rank-based organizations to distribute benefits according to rank, the more the higher, irrespective of individual productivity. Most pathologically, there is a subordination of reporting lines to decision-making ability: only flattering news moves up, fiats move down the chain of command.

Nielsen proposes the transition to peer-based, more-or-less democratic organizations not merely on moral grounds; but, he believes as a means of maintaining productivity and enhancing organizational survival in an increasingly turbulent business environment. Technically proficient and informed individuals can team up and rotate leadership duties within and among teams, depending upon the nature of the problems presented to their organizations and the needs those problems generate. It is important to separate decision-making from organizational structure. Nielsen specifies as a basic design rule of a peer-based organization that decisions be made and conflicts resolved at the lowest possible level.[17]

The structure of a peer-based organization goes a long way towards dealing with the tension between leadership and morality. It makes leadership less heroic perhaps, since great internal struggles within the organization are precluded. The peer-based organization also may be less likely to stultify the moral judgment of individual members -- but "group think" still looks to be a possibility.[18]

Our economic institutions already in many cases separate ownership from decision-making.[19] Not every enterprise need be organized on the model of a plantation. Having the gold does not mean making the rules. If all that organizational rank does is to become ossified into privilege, distancing itself far from those organizational interfaces where information is most accessible and uncensored; and, far from where productive concerns are most cogent, then not only good business sense but moral concern demands a change.


[1] See The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Mikailovich Dostoevsky. Translated by Constance Garnett. Chapter 5 "The Grand Inquisitor" at

[2] For some interesting corroboration see Mary Frances Luce, John W. Payne and James R. Bettman, "The Emotional Nature of Decision Trade-offs" pp. 17 - 35 in Stephen J. Hoch and Howard C. Kunreiter Wharton on Decision Making (Hoboken, Wiley: 2001).

[3] Many plays, and books, fiction and not, expand on this theme from various perspectives, e.g. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World; B. F. Skinners Walden Two; Phillip Rieff's The Triumph of the Therapeutic; or Archibald's MacLeish's J. B.

[4] See "Ending Violence Against Women and Girls" United Nations Population Fund

[5] See Terrill Jones "Family Sentenced for killing westernized girl," Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, December 4, 1994. Koranic authorities in Nice, France testified that Koranic justice did not sanction the family's actions.

See also, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, "When killing is seen as the sole route to honor," Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, November 21, 2003. A mother kills her daughter who was impregnated by her sons when the girl refuses to commit suicide. Her siblings have forgiven their mother whom they say was only protecting the family from "people."

Also, Katherine Zoepf, A Dishonorable Affair The New York Times, September 23, 2007. A married Syrian woman is killed by her brother and her husband jailed for kidnapping and rape because she was pregnant at the time of her marriage. Religious authorities condemn the practice.

[6] Another variation on Alvin Ward Gouldner's "Cosmopolitans and Locals: toward an analysis of latent social roles" Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3 (December 1957)

[7] Cf. Richard Weatherley and Michael Lipsky, "Street-Level Bureaucrats and Institutional Innovation: Implementing Special Education Reform" Harvard Educational Review. Vol.47, No.2. May 1977.

An old but still interesting article is Joseph Berger, "New York's Principals Tell Why They •Break the Rules'" New York Times February 2, 1989, Section B, p. 1.

[8] Martha Woodall "Nurse alleges school underreported violence," Philadelphia Inquirer 2007-09-22 Page B02   CITY-D

[9] Executive Summary, Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2004", National Center for Education Statistics

[10] See Jonathan Miller. "The Week; Education Report Cites Irregularities in Testing". New York Times August 20, 2006 Students in the historically underperforming Camden school system recorded some of the highest test scores in the state for 2005.

[11] Phillip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect. Understanding how good people turn evil. (New York: Random House, 2007)

[12] Kenwyn K. Smith, Groups in Conflict. Prisons in Disguise. (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1982) uses the terms "uppers", "middles" and "lowers", respectively for what we are calling here "powerholders", "implementers" and "lowers".

[13] Smith, Groups in Conflict. Prisons in Disguise. pp.248--249.

[14] See Edward G. Rozycki, "Leadership and Morality: an unavoidable conflict?" at Meindl et al, reviewing primarily commercial and administrative sources (R. Meindl, Sanford B. Ehrlich and Janet M. Dukerich, –The Romance of Leadership,” Administrative Science Quarterly 30 (1985): 78-102.) in effect characterize heroic leadership as effective leadership in the face of great adversity.

In contrast, Phillip Zimbardo (Lucifer, p. 466) offers as four defining characteristics of heroism: a. that it be engaged in voluntarily; b. it must involve risk or sacrifice; c. it must be conducted in the service of others; and d. it must be done without expectation of secondary, extrinsic gain at the time of the act. Only the last condition is more restrictive than Meindl's "minimalist" characterization. I would point out that Zimbardo's conditions can be at best, presumptive (or, using H.L.A. Hart's term, "defeasible" -- see Rozycki on Defeasible Concepts at; they are clearly not behavioral. (By "behavioral" here I mean "verifiable by observers from (vastly) different cultures," or "verifiable by observation with minimal interpretation, especially of purpose or intention.")

Zimbardo is concerned with heroism, Meindl with heroic leadership. That leadership is under consideration by Meindl presumptively meets Zimbardo's condition of service to others. The voluntariness of the act also is presumed. The mention of great adversity satisfies Zimbardo's risk condition. The only sticking point is Zimbardo's requirement of lack of extrinsic motivation. This clearly makes room for Zimbardo for moral judgment but at the cost of broader applicability. In a business environment, for example, or anywhere leadership is a contracted relationship, extrinsic motivations may be present. To reject such circumstance as precluding heroism is to reject much well established English usage. Thus, I will stick with Meindl's characterization.

[15] Smith, Groups in Conflict, "Structural Relativity" p. 243.

[16] See Jeffrey S . Nielsen The Myth of Leadership. Creating Leaderless Organizations. (Palo Alto: Davies-Black 2004)

[17] See Nielsen, p. 116.

[18] See Zimbardo, p. 354. See also Irving L. Janis Crucial Decisions. Leadership in Policymaking and Crisis Management. (New York: Free Press, 1989) p. 220.

[19] For other perspectives, see Gretchen Morgenson, "The Owners Who Can't Fire" New York Times 10-14-07 Sunday Business p. 1.