Henri Fayol, in search of an interpretive key to his ideas

In his classic book Industrial and General Administration, in French Administration Industrielle et générale, before listing his famous fourteen “general principles of administration,” Henri Fayol draws the reader’s attention to the meaning that the word principle would assume in his text. However, far from presenting a precise definition or providing any reference to the source on which it was based, he only warned that he would use the term, disconnecting it from the “idea of ​​rigidity” (Fayol, 1989, p. 43).

Although he did not present a formal definition, which somewhat frustrates our academic expectations, Fayol’s warning served, at least, to alert us that his use of the term was at odds with the common meanings cataloged in dictionaries prevailing at the time. In fact, in the French dictionary Larousse & Augé (1898), the principle appears as: first cause, elementary and fundamental proposition, origin, the moral or fundamental rule of conduct, starting point or root cause of what something is, comes to be or what can be known. Apparently, it was from these meanings that Fayol sought to distance himself as much as possible.

Soto (2016) was attentive to this fact, to the point of concluding that, in that book, what Fayol called principles “in the strictest sense, sin guidelines for action or rules of behavior, may be essential for administrative practice and for the understanding of the administration” (p. 113). This problem, he says, would not be restricted to Fayol but appears in several other (classical) authors in the field who used the term in their approaches to the administrative phenomenon. That is why Soto generalizes: “it is possible that the way that the terminology has been understood in the theory of administration is valid as a meaning in the common language” (2016, p. 99).

This interpretation by Soto (2016), however, does not seem to us to be entirely correct. He is right when he says that the word principle has entered the scientific field of administration with the meaning of “common language.” In fact, one cannot do without conceptual rigor in our area. However, given the conceptual apparatus he had and how he thought about the administrative phenomenon – administration as art – Fayol seems to have acted coherently.

The principles that the French author defended for the practice and theory of administration are not “orientaciones de acción or rules of behavior,” as Soto supposes (2016). Fayol wanted to avoid essentialisms or determinisms that could lead to a static view of what the administrative phenomenon is in its various forms of practical manifestation because, as he said, “there is nothing rigid or absolute in administrative matters” since “the same principle will seldom be applied twice under identical conditions” (1989, p. 43).

Now, a statement like this is not without discomfort, especially if we consider that it was made in a scenario in which the rigor of the scientific management of Frederick Taylor and his associates gained wide dissemination and supporters. To the rigidity of Taylor’s science and its corresponding notions of measurement and measurement, Fayol, without departing from administration and its direct link with politics and justice, proposes the idea of ​​measure in the circumstances: in terms of administration, “it is necessary to take into account circumstances diverse and variable, men equally variable and different and many other elements also variable” (1989, p. 43). In other words, the administrator is a being in ever-changing circumstances that demand a particular way of proceeding from him. It would not be, as Taylor wanted, a science but a “difficult art” to be exercised (1989, 43). Hence Fayol’s capital proposition: in administrative matters, “everything (…) is a matter of measurement” (1989, p. 43). The emphasis on the word measure, “mesure” in French, was given by him in the original (1917, p. 25).

More often than not, this passage has been ignored in our academic environment, a fact that has made the French engineer’s ideas have received much less weight than they deserve. The use of the term measure in his book was not lucky, and it appears throughout the text more than four dozen times, mainly with a predominant meaning but not yet adequately explored by scholars of his work. The interpretative key that I present here, in a preliminary way, is that the term must be seen in alignment with the classical thought of fair measure or fair means. Put it another way: in Fayol, administrative action would be a kind of action according to the average that the circumstances and the agreed ends require; that is, it is a type of proportional action. So, let’s see.

After stating that everything in administrative matters is a “matter of measurement,” Fayol complements this critical point in the following way: manner:

“(…) such principles will therefore be malleable and capable of adapting to all needs. The question is how to use them; this is a difficult art that requires intelligence, experience, decision and restraint” (1989, p. 43).

The reader, however, must ask: how so? Where does he reinforce this pivotal point you refer to? Where is the “measure”? I answer: the problem is in the translation. In the original it reads:

“Aussi les principes sont-ils souples et susceptibles de s’adapter à tous les besoins. Il s’agit de savoir s’en serve. C’est un art difficile that requires de l’intelligence, de l’expérience, de la décision et de la mesure.” (Fayol, 1917, p. 25) (emphasis in bold)

As can be seen, the translators of the book from French to Portuguese chose, in this passage and in others, to replace the word measure with “restraint,” a term that is, in fact, one of the possible synonyms used for measure. Strictly speaking, there is no mistake in doing so. However, “restraint” not only removes all the vigor of the meaning that the word measure has but also removes it from one of the major traditions of Western thought that have embarked on speculating on the arts “which refer to the right measure, to everything that it is convenient, opportune, and due, to everything that preserves the middle between two extremes” and that “applies to all things that change,” as Plato defended in his Politics (passages 284d-285c).

In another passage, the translators opted for “assessment of things,” as in the following:

“The exact evaluation of things, the result of tact and experience, is one of the main qualities of the manager” (1989, p. 43) (emphasis in bold).

In French we have:

“Faite de tact et d’experience, la mesure est l’une des principales qualités de l’administrateur.” (1917, p. 25) (emphasis in bold mine)

Throughout the entire translated text, for example, we will find measure as: the sense of measure, when the author deals with the principle of division of labor (p. 45); measure, when it addresses the attribution of responsibility during the exposition of the principle of authority (p. 45); degree, when dealing with the problem of “centralizing versus decentralizing” in the principle of centralization (p. 57); proportion, when he seeks to define the qualities (including moral qualities) and knowledge desirable in a “great boss” (p. 99). This diversity of synonyms distracts the reader, removing him from an interpretative line that gives meaning to the author’s real concerns. I believe that viewing his ideas in the light of the notion of fair means or fair measure reinvigorates, in our days, reflections on administrative practice.

For the author, “the initiative, the energy, the measure, the courage of responsibilities, the feeling of duty, etc. they are also moral qualities that place great value on the superior agents of industry,” that is, on administrators (1989, p. 107) (emphasis in bold). Given this consideration, we would not be exaggerating if, taking another step towards the right measure, we brought Fayol’s proposition closer to Aristotle’s notion of phronesis. Translators do not fail to consider this approximation when translating “measure” into “restraint.” It would have been better if they had used the word “prudence.” However, as Paul Ricouer rightly said, difficulties, renunciations, and resistances are inherent to the translation activity, causing a kind of mourning in the translator, and “it is this mourning of absolute translation that makes translating happiness” (2011, p. 29). 

Finally, it is essential to note that Fayol’s approach to the tradition of “just-measure” is, here, still speculation but fruitful speculation. It starts from the first idea that the clarification of the meaning of the term in the author’s texts has been ignored by most scholars and, therefore, has not reached university banks. The time has come, however, to put it openly, even if only in an introductory way, as we will do here. For Fayol, managing is, above all, a matter of measure, not measurement.


Larousse, P.; Augé, C. (ed.). (1898). Nouveau Larousse illustré: dictionnaire universel encyclopédique.  Vol. 07. Obtido de: https://archive.org/details/nouveaularoussei07laro/page/32/mode/2up

Soto, L.A.C. Una revisión a los principios de la administración de Henri Fayol desde el concepto de principio. In.: Soto, L.A.C.; Bálcazar, Á.P.G. (2016). Marcos de análisis teóricos de la realidad administrativa. México: UNAM. p. 97-114.

Fayol, H. (1917). Administration industrielle et Générale. Paris: H. Dunod et E. Pinat, Editeurs.Fayol, H. (1989). Administração industrial e geral. Tradução de Irene de Bojano e Mário de Souza. 10. Ed. São paulo: Atlas.

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