Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Prisoners of Myth

Prisoners of Myth: The Leadership of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933-1990

Erwin C. Hargrove
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Prisoners of Myth
    Book Description:

    Prisoners of Mythis the first comprehensive history of the Tennessee Valley Authority from its creation to the present day. It is also a telling case study of organizational evolution and decline. Building on Philip Selznick's classic workTVA and the Grass Roots(1949), a seminal text in the theoretical study of bureaucracy, Erwin Hargrove analyzes the organizational culture of the TVA by looking at the actions of its leaders over six decades--from the heroic years of the New Deal and World War II through the postwar period of consolidation and growth to the time of troubles from 1970 onward, when the TVA ran afoul of environmental legislation, built a massive nuclear power program that it could not control, and sought new missions for which there were no constituencies.

    The founding myth of multipurpose regional development was inappropriately pursued in the 1970s and '80s by leaders who became "prisoners of myth" in their attempt to keep the TVA heroic. A decentralized organization, which had worked well at the grass roots, was difficult to redirect as the nuclear genii spun out of control. TVA autonomy from Washington, once a virtue, obscured political accountability. This study develops an important new theory about institutional performance in the face of historical change.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2153-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-2)
    Erwin C. Hargrove
  5. CHAPTER 1 History and Theory
    (pp. 3-16)

    Organizations may fail in their missions when they seek to repeat glories of the past in changed conditions. Old missions may not match new problems. Political failure may also follow as new demands on the organization are frustrated. We usually think of such failures as occurring in rigid, hidebound organizations that are caught up in past habits and devoid of innovative leadership. But there is an interesting variation in the story. The organization may continue to be highly innovative but still fail. It will not simply cleave to old programs and missions but will actually become more inventive in those...

  6. Part I: The Founding Generation

    • CHAPTER 2 Visions of an Institution
      (pp. 19-41)

      The Tennessee Valley Authority was the manifestation of many historical threads, not all of which were woven into one fabric.¹ Proposals for federal action to improve navigation on the Tennessee River were long-standing. The Army Corps of Engineers first recognized the potential number of dam sites on the river, not only for improving navigation but for generating hydroelectric power. However, the corps had no mandate for the latter purpose and would have had to integrate its plans with public or private utilities.

      The open question from World War I until 1933 was how best to develop the hydroelectric capacities of...

    • CHAPTER 3 Lilienthal’s TVA: The Politics of Leadership
      (pp. 42-64)

      David Lilienthal and his vision of TVA triumphed over the romanticism of Arthur Morgan. The irony is that eventually Lilienthal added a romantic halo to TVA that was to inspire, confuse, and mislead his successors.

      Joseph Swidler, Lilienthal’s legal lieutenant in the power program and later general counsel for TVA, believed Lilienthal was the right man at the right time:

      [H]e has a lot of common sense, a streak of conservatism. I think it was probably helpful to him in the TVA that he was brought up in a small town in Indiana, and had taken his undergraduate work at...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Development of TVA Organizational Culture
      (pp. 65-84)

      This chapter and the next describe the development of a governance system within TVA in the 1930s and 1940s as bureaucratization was required to overcome the deficiencies of tripartite leadership. The general-manager system was the antidote to failures of coordination of the areas of influence of the three directors. In that system, the board confined itself for the most part to policy decisions on the basis of recommendations from the operating divisions, with the general manager acting as conduit and coordinator. The general manager has never been an executive officer or manager of TVA operations. It has been a job...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Organization in Action
      (pp. 85-110)

      It is time to lay out the actual work of TVA in the valley. The themes of governance—internal autonomy and collegiality—were consistent with belief in the partnership of TVA with public agencies and private groups in which the autonomy of all parties was combined with collaboration. We begin with regional planning because that was the most holistic endeavor within TVA, and its weaknesses illustrate the practical consequences of the victory of Lilienthal and H. A. Morgan over A. E. Morgan.

      Sections 22 and 23 of the TVA Act authorized the president to initiate plans and recommend their implementation...

    • EPILOGUE: PART I The Past as Prologue
      (pp. 111-114)

      The most important task for the leaders of a new organization is to create and manage an organizational culture consisting of two main elements, a sense of purpose and a method of work.¹ The creation of a culture solves two basic problems. The purposes of the organization are made clear. And guidelines for internal governance and relations with the external world are set. Even though the pattern of goals and relationships that develops may be loosely coupled, an equilibrium is created which, if it works to most people’s satisfaction, acquires stability and is not easy to change.

      The myths that...

  7. Part II: Prisoners of Myth

    • CHAPTER 6 Consolidating Leadership: Clapp and Vogel
      (pp. 117-154)

      Several unresolved problems were settled during the Clapp and Vogel years, from 1947 to 1962. TVA became the power company for the Tennessee Valley. The political opposition to congressional appropriations for the construction of steam plants was overcome by the passage in 1959 of the Bond Revenue Act which enabled TVA to finance its power program through the sale of bonds. The farm demonstration program reduced the scope of its mission, and the chemical division became the national center for testing new formulas for fertilizer. The ideal of multipurpose regional development took a new form in a program for the...

    • CHAPTER 7 Rise and Fall of the Dynamo
      (pp. 155-194)

      “Aubrey J. Red” Wagner began to work for TVA in 1934 as a navigation engineer, not long after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. He worked his way up to be head of the navigation division, assistant general manager under Clapp, general manager under Vogel, member of the board in 1961, and chairman of the board from 1962 to 1978. He was surely the most important figure in TVA history after David Lilienthal.

      Gordon Clapp was Wagner’s mentor and his ideal. Wagner admired Clapp’s nonpolitical posture, his insistence on professional expertise as the basis for decisions, and embraced the multipurpose...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Politics of Organizational Renewal
      (pp. 195-241)

      S. David Freeman was nominated by President Carter for appointment to the TVA board in July 1977. It was assumed in news stories that Carter would name Freeman chairman when Wagner retired in 1978, and Freeman did become chairman in May of that year. He was removed as chairman in mid-1981 by President Reagan, on the advice of Senator Howard Baker, and served as a director until mid-1984.

      A Chattanooga native, Freeman had been an engineer and lawyer with TVA from 1948 to 1961. He later worked as an assistant to former TVA chief counsel Joseph Swidler, who was chairman...

    • CHAPTER 9 Denouement
      (pp. 242-275)

      In 1985 Hugh Parris, manager of nuclear power for TVA, shut down the three nuclear reactors at the Browns Ferry plant and the two reactors at the Sequoyah plant for fear that TVA would not be able to meet the safety requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The virtues of decentralization for efficient operations, which had been a hallmark since 1932, suddenly appeared to be a major problem for it was apparent that the TVA board did not have managerial control over the implementation of the nuclear program. The safety problems themselves, within the Offices of Power and Engineering Design...

    • EPILOGUE: PART II New Departures
      (pp. 276-280)

      Marvin Runyon became chairman of the TVA board in January 1988 at the age of sixty-three. He had been a production executive with the Ford Motor Company for many years and, since 1980, president of the Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corporation, USA, in Smyrna, Tennessee. His reputation at Ford, and later at Nissan, had been that of an innovator.¹

      Runyon’s central objective was to increase the “competitiveness” of TVA’s electricity program. He created a top-management committee that met every week and appointed six task forces to examine every aspect of TVA activity. His watchword was that TVA should be “run like...

    • CHAPTER 10 Reflections
      (pp. 281-306)

      The tasks of leaders are very different at different sequences in the history of an organization. The founding is an exercise in the creation of meaning. Purpose and direction may be provided by the founding charter, but the first generation of leaders must match statements of purpose to the political resources and constraints in the environment of the organization, and this requires a period of trial and error, and perhaps conflict, until purpose and politics can be brought together. A parallel task is to imbue the ranks of the organization, itself with purposive cohesion so that bureaucratic processes are consistent...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 307-354)
  9. Index
    (pp. 355-374)