posted 28 Aug 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 1
Book review: Geeks and Geezers
Patti Anklam reviews Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders, by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas.
Title: Geeks and Geezers
Author: Warren G. Bennis & Robert J. Thomas
Publishers: HBS Press, 2002
Geeks and Geezers is a wonderful collaboration between Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas that provides a new way of looking at leadership by examining the life experiences and characteristics of leaders in two very distinct age groups. Through interviews with 25 geezers (people in their 70s) and 18 geeks (those in their 30s), the authors create a colloquy between these two groups, based on their life experiences and reflections on leadership.
The structure of the book is counterpoised by the themes that distinguish the two groups and the characteristics they share. Chief among the differences is the influence of the era and their time in history that has shaped their worldviews. Geezers have an analogue perspective, from the world in the 1950s and 1960s that seemed predictable, mechanical and orderly; the geeks have a digital view, based on the non-linear, complex and asymmetric 1990s. The authors also introduce two key ideas from their research: crucibles – life-transforming events – and neoteny – the retention of youthful qualities.
The subsequent chapters bring out the characteristics of each group, further illustrating the eras that shaped them. They highlight commonalities among group members and dissimilarities between the groups. Summary charts of era-based differences accompany thought-provoking lists of favourite works of fiction and heroes that further typify these generations. This is not dry data; these chapters show the heart of the stories that leaders tell about their lives, experiences and wants.
The authors distil their findings into an explicit leadership model. In summary, the era into which you are born and your individual experiences are refined through a crucible experience. Leaders tend to have a number of characteristics in common, regardless of their age. They have, for example, an adaptive capacity, fuelled by neoteny, which makes them creative, hardy and open to new ideas.
The concluding chapter returns to the theme of neoteny. It’s not about a youthful appearance, rather an enduring sense of wonder and energy. This chapter examines the implications of what the geeks and geezers have shared with the authors: what it means to organisations that need to develop leadership and to individuals to whom life-long learning comes naturally. The authors answer the question, how do geeks become geezers?
It also begs a question from the generations in between, particularly that bulbous collection of baby boomers (among which, I confess, I must count myself): what was the crucible of our time? This is what that the authors would like us, and those of all generations, to ask.
The leadership model resonates, not only because the stories and interview data illustrate each element of the model, but also because it rings true. Each part of this model is present in other leadership models. For example, John P. Kotter, in Leading Change,1 includes the importance of personal history and experience, lifelong learning, and competitive drive and capacity in his leadership model for a difficult and fast-moving global economy. While Leading Change is prescriptive, outlining what a leader must do, Geeks and Geezers is descriptive, saying who a leader must be and the context in which a leader develops.
Geeks and Geezers is not a knowledge-management book, but KM leaders will derive insight into themselves and the organisational leaders with whom they work. Geeks are more likely to work collaboratively, as opposed to geezers, who grew up in a world of command and control. The book can give you the context for such differences among the leaders around you. Good leaders are more likely to support strategies that include the development and retention of human and intellectual capital.
The book can also give you a blueprint for your own leadership and work: be adaptive, learn to work with and embrace the new and challenging. For example, always communicate, listen and provide context and meaning for programmes you lead. Know yourself, your own capabilities and weak spots. From this, it is clear that the book’s audience is broad and deep – for leaders and those who develop them – and applies to all sectors and businesses.
It is important to note that the book is US-biased, thus the specific era and political-based influences are likely to be different for those in other countries. Specifically, the authors echo the comments of David Gergen, president of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the preface for the book. They encourage us, on a national basis, to provide difficult, arduous, challenging and inspirational experiences that will shape the next generations of leaders.
1. Kotter, J. P., Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996)
Patti Anklam was formerly director of knowledge management at Nortel Networks, Global Professional Services. She can be contacted at: email@example.com