August 11, 2014
News & Opinion: Warren Bennis | 1925-2014
Aaron updated us last Wednesday with some dispatches we've received from a new generation of Authors On the Road, Changing the World. It is great to hear from the folks we're working with, to watch them spreading their ideas and expertise, and see them slowly and deliberately effect real change as they do. But, we know they're standing on the shoulders of giants, and as this new generation of authors and educators strengthens and broadens the scope of the business book genre, we have been losing some of those giants—the first generation of business book writers, the ones that blazed the trail, that made the study of business, management, and leadership an educational pursuit rather than a purely profit-based one. When Jack and Todd wrote The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, the majority of the authors of those 100 books were still alive. That will not be the case forever, and with each passing year it becomes a little less true. We lost three authors in The 100 Best—Stephen Covey, Roger Fisher, and Zig Ziglar—in 2012 alone. On July 31, 2014, we lost a giant among giants, Warren Bennis. Bennis wrote more than 30 books (you could get a better view of the world just standing on those books, let alone reading them), the most well-known and influential being On Becoming a Leader. Bill George, a notable author, business man, and educator in his own right, wrote on his blog last week that:
Just as Peter Drucker was “the father of management,” Warren Bennis will be remembered as “the father of leadership.” It was Warren who first said leadership is not a set of genetic characteristics, but rather the result of the lifelong process of self-discovery. That process enables people to become fully integrated human beings who know themselves and bring out the best in others.
Bennis went through that process himself. In the introduction to the revised edition of On Becoming a Leader in 2003, Bennis tells us how he became interested in leadership:
I once told an interviewer who asked how I became interested in leadership, that it was impossible to live through the 1930s and '40s without thinking about leadership. There were giants on the earth in those days—leaders of the stature of FDR, Churchill, and Gandhi. And there were also men who wielded enormous power in the most horrific ways—Hitler and Stalin—men who perverted the very essence of leadership and killed millions of innocent people in the process. The Great Depression and the battlefields of World War II were my crucible, as they were for so many people my age.
When you read that, it gives an added depth to Bennis's study of leadership. What could be seen as an aloof, academic pursuit becomes an epic and affirming quest for understanding the world and improving it. Yes, he had a view from the ivory tower (not incidentally his first book, about his time as provost at the State University of New York at Buffalo, was titled The Leaning Ivory Tower), but he also had his ear to the ground, and his interest in the topic was not purely academic. It was an interest rooted in his real-world experience—in struggle, sweat, blood, and guts, and in a time where the future of the world was anything but sure. At the age of nineteen, as one of the youngest platoon leaders in the European Theater during World War II, Bennis literally had his boots on the ground in that struggle, and earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for it. And though he led men in war, his views on leadership were anything but rigid or rooted in hierarchy and chain-of-command. As Martin Weil of the Washington Post wrote:
In a sense, his multifaceted life reflected the beliefs he developed about the nature and practice of leadership. Among those qualities he found important were the humanistic virtues, including creativity, vision and openness to ideas and experience, as well as genuine concern for the lives of those who are led. Few thinkers, writers or scholars possessed greater rhetorical gifts for formulating memorable mottoes, aphorisms and observations about how to achieve and inspire success. In distinguishing between the unimaginative manager and the far-seeing leader, Dr. Bennis said that the former “does things right,” while the latter “does the right thing.” He would also say that while “the manager has his eye on the bottom line,” the true leader “has his eye on the horizon.” Although leaders are often regarded as necessarily above and apart from those they lead, Dr. Bennis emphasized the importance of joint effort. “None of us,” he said, “is as smart as all of us.” Those who aspired to lead others and develop their talents, he maintained, needed to learn to understand themselves and develop their own best selves. In holding to such principles, he showed an affinity for the ideas of humanistic philosophy and a belief in the richness of human potential that often goes untapped.
But, he held leaders to a high standard, a standard he thought they were not meeting for much of the 20th century. The New York Times' Glenn Rifkin wrote about that recently:
Professor Bennis said he found such leadership largely missing in the late 20th century in all quarters of society—in business, politics, academia and the military. In On Becoming a Leader, he took aim at corporate leadership, finding it particularly ineffectual and tracing its failings in part to corporate corruption, extravagant executive compensation and an undue emphasis on quarterly earnings over long-term benefits, both for the business itself and society at large. He worried until recently about what he called a “leadership vacuum” in America, a problem he said was caused to a great extent by a lack of high-quality leadership training at the nation’s business schools. A dearth of visionary business leaders, he said, meant that companies were being led more by managers of the bottom line than by passionate, independent thinkers who could steer an organization effectively. “We are at least halfway through the looking glass, on our way to utter chaos,” he wrote in On Becoming a Leader. “When the very model of a modern manager becomes C.E.O., he does not become a leader, he becomes a boss, and it is the bosses who have gotten America into its current fix.”
Contrary to the rose-colored lens so many put on the Greatest Generation and yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, Bennis called out the former and lauded the latter. Again, from Glenn Rifkin and the Times:
In recent years Professor Bennis became more optimistic about the next wave of business leaders, labeling it “the Crucible Generation,” which he said compared favorably to his own World War II generation. Rather than hubris and arrogance, he said, this new generation’s brand of leadership may well be characterized by “respect, not just tolerance.” He saw signs that business leaders in the decades to come, inheriting a diverse and complex global environment, would have a better understanding of the territory in which they lead—what he called “contextual intelligence.” “The truth,” he wrote in an essay in Forbes magazine in 2009, “may be that history, in its kindness, gave this new generation a grand crucible challenge, as it did my own. The young of today have been summoned to receive that same kindness through the collective failures of their elders.”
I don't think it would be a stretch by any means to credit Mr. Bennis and his work for at least some of that improvement in leadership. He taught and mentored so many—at least three presidents sought his counsel. The leaders of today all have had access to the study of organizations and leadership that Bennis helped pioneer, and his humble, humanistic, and holistic approach to study of leadership has touched the generations that have come after his. And he will continue to have influence, to reverberate in the academic and business worlds specifically, and in the wider world as a whole, for some time—one would hope forever. Bennis himself summed it up best when interviewed for his memoir, Still Surprised:
To have people read your words ... is a way of feeling I’ve influenced the lives of others for the common good. Running through all my work, I think there’s a humanitarian impulse that if we work together for a good cause, we can change the world.
We can, and you did. Thank you, Mr. Bennis, for everything.