posted 9 Dec 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 4
The knowledge: Warren Bennis
Warren Bennis was originally scheduled to present a keynote presentation at this year’s KM Europe exhibition, before he was forced to withdraw on grounds of ill health. Now fully recovered, the man widely regarded as one of this century’s foremost leadership gurus spoke to Simon Lelic about his latest book and what he believes constitutes a great leader.
Warren Bennis knows a thing or two about leadership. As he says, “I have been thinking about this subject almost as long as I have been thinking.” In a career spanning almost half a century, Bennis has written 27 books on leadership, change and collaboration. Of these, one – Leaders – was recently listed among the top 50 business titles ever written by the Financial Times, while another – An Invented Life – was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. He has been called the ‘dean of leadership gurus’ by Forbes magazine, the ‘Buck Rogers of organisational change’ in a review of one his books, and has sat on the advisory boards of four US presidents.
Bennis has also practised what he continues to preach. In 1967, a prolonged period of intense study of leadership gave way to more than a decade in which Bennis carried out what he had learnt. First, he left what he describes as a comfortable and rewarding position on the faculty of MIT to serve as provost at the State University of New York, before becoming president of the University of Cincinnati in 1971. “There is,” he says, “a profound difference between reading up on something and performing it, between observed truth and participative truth.” These experiences added to an already impressive grounding in the fundamentals of leadership, providing, through the triumphs and tragedies of experience, what Bennis describes as a thick texture to his understanding of what makes a good leader.
In spite of this and for all his accomplishments, Bennis fully admits that this kind of role isn’t for him. “The truth is, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and I wouldn’t want to do it again,” he says. “While I had a curious admixture of shortcomings and competencies as an academic leader, I knew in my heart that there were others who could do it better.” Bennis has since devoted his career to writing, consulting and speaking on the topic of leadership, three areas he has unquestionably excelled in. He also continues as professor and founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, and chairman of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Born in 1925, Bennis has seen great leaders come and go in almost every sphere of human activity, from politics to business to the military (one of Bennis’s most cherished achievements is, at 19, serving as one of the youngest infantry commanders in Europe during World War II, earning the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart). “As a life-long student of leadership, I have always been fascinated both by those who become leaders and those who don’t,” he says. “Just as intriguing as great leaders are those gifted people who somehow get stuck and never manage to actualise their talents. The frustration of talent and the embitterment that usually follows is one of the saddest phenomena I know – and one of the most instructive.”
Bennis is convinced that good leaders are not necessarily born that way. (“How many successful dynasties can you think of?” he asks.) Rather, he believes leaders are moulded by experience – not just any experience, but those events that define an individual’s life. “Equally important,” he adds, “is the opportunity to reflect and learn from those experiences. Successful leaders are learning men and women. The way we learn about leadership competencies is through direct experience followed by the opportunity to reflect.”
He goes on to define the four qualities that he feels characterise a good leader in the knowledge economy. “Adaptive capacity is the first,” he says, “meaning a positive outlook and learning. Next, the capacity to engage and relate meaningfully to a wide variety of stakeholders. Third, an appropriate degree of ambition or drive, which enables you to develop competence and business literacy. And finally, a moral compass that includes values, principles and integrity.” As Bennis points out, we are currently witnessing a backlash against the heroic, larger-than-life, Rushmorean figures that have dominated the corporate landscape for so long (think Messier, Welch, Simpson and so on), but these qualities are, in his opinion, timeless.
They are concepts that he explores in greater depth in his latest book, Geeks & Geezers – How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders. Co-written with Robert Thomas, senior research fellow at Accenture’s Institute for Strategic Change, the book contrasts the experiences of so-called geeks – today’s generation of young leaders who grew up in the glow of computer screens and televisions – and geezers, the leaders of their grandparents’ generation who were defined by world events of the ’30s and ’40s, a category Bennis places himself into. As the authors put it, it is a book about “leadership and learning and about the almost magical process by which some people succeed, however they define success, not just once but again and again”.
In the book, Bennis and Thomas present a new model for leadership; a theory that they maintain describes, for the first time, how leaders come to be. At its heart are what the authors refer to as ‘crucibles’ – defining moments that have the power to make or break an individual. The book explores why it is that some people are able to draw strength and create meaning from what are often tragic events, whereas others find themselves helpless and paralysed. It is a model that explains why Nelson Mandela was able to spend 27 years in a South African prison and emerge to become, in the authors’ words, the most powerful moral leader since Ghandi; the process that allowed one of the geezers featured in the book – Sidney Rittenberg – to pioneer business ties between the United States and China after spending 16 years in a number of Chinese prisons.
The authors also dedicate a large proportion of the book to exploring the impact of era on leadership. “We see era as important, not because it defines individuals, but because it presents them with a shared history and culture and a specific arena in which to act,” they write. ‘Analogue’ is the umbrella term Bennis and Thomas choose to describe the era that produced their geezers, one that valued linear narrative and thinking, and believed in organisational hierarchy and chain of command. By contrast, the geeks have grown up in a digital era, they argue, one that is entirely non-linear and that has ditched the corporate pyramid in favour of the flat organisation. Their analysis of how era has defined each of the individuals featured in the book is insightful and entirely convincing.
“Feedback so far as been excellent,” says Bennis. “The Financial Times gave the book a terrific review and sales are good. It appeared on Business Week’s bestseller list after minimum publicity and, as yet, no major review in the US.” It is indeed astounding that, after such a full and varied career, Bennis still has so much to offer. Partly, perhaps, it is because he continues to exhibit the one characteristic he and Thomas uncovered in each and every one of the geezers they interviewed: ‘neoteny’, a term taken from zoology that means ‘the retention of youthful qualities by adults’. As Bennis explains, neoteny is about more than simply youthful appearance; it is the retention of all of the wonderful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy and a hunger for knowledge and experience. It is indeed a quality that Bennis himself seems to have in spades.
1. Bennis, W.G., Leaders(HaperCollins, 1997)
2. Bennis, W.G., An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change(Random House Business Books, 1994)
3. Quote taken from review of Bennis, W.G., Changing Organizations (McGraw-Hill, 1966)
4. Bennis, W.G., Geeks & Geezers – How Era, Value and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2002)