What Is Warren Bennis’s Legacy?
Summing Up Jim Heskett's readers ponder the life and legacy of leading management educator Warren Bennis.
Was Warren Bennis's Optimism Regarding the Future of Leadership Warranted?
In a recent obituary for Warren Bennis in the New York Times, former executive and HBS Professor Bill George was quoted as writing that "I look at Peter Drucker as the father of management and Warren Bennis as the father of leadership." In an extended remembrance that Bill sent to me, he went on to say that "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…. As I was joining Medtronic (a company George would later lead) in 1989, I read Warren's classic, On Becoming a Leader. For the first time an author described the kind of leader I wanted to be: purpose-driven, values-centered, passionate, and resilient."
Warren Bennis left us a legacy of strong views regarding leadership. Throughout his long career as a professor, administrator, author, and consultant, he held firmly to his belief that "leaders are made rather than born." (That notion provides sustenance for many of us helping prepare students for leadership.) His legacy is found in other influential practitioners and scholars of leadership. As I prepared the original piece on Bennis, Jay Lorsch, a colleague, reminded me that when Lorsch was a student at Antioch College in Ohio, Warren Bennis was his faculty advisor. Warren Briggs, a Professor Emeritus, wrote that "He was … a favorite professor … (and) an effective mentor to many, both personally and professionally." According to Karen Page, coauthor of Becoming a Chef Bennis demonstrated his lifelong curiosity by both taking time to read the book and to comment that "becoming an outstanding leader is not very different from becoming a chef. Both roles require passion, discipline, authenticity, and an experimental attitude."
Bennis apparently had an influence on other readers of this column as well. Camille Smith, who had an opportunity to work with his Global Institute for Leadership Development, commented that "What struck me about him was his gentle and focused message. He was clear that leadership was about relationships, first and foremost. To start anywhere else or put stock in the latest fad was futile." Alex added that "his crucibles of leadership ('difficult events' out of which leaders establish meaning in their lives and achieve distinctive voices) concept really resonated and still does." Philip offered the opinion that "one of (his) greatest and enduring contributions is the way he made the notion of leadership accessible. He demystified it and got into the nuts and bolts of what leading really means."
There was an optimistic tone to much of what Bennis wrote about leadership. This prompted Bill McClaren to write, "It's interesting that he was down on greedy 'leaders' and then later became more optimistic… Unfortunately, I don't see much evidence that CEOs are becoming more altruistic or humble. Just the opposite …"
Was Warren Bennis's optimism regarding the future of leadership warranted? What do you think?
Warren Bennis, known for his work in the field of leadership, died last week. He left behind a large body of stimulating writing and practice in his chosen field. To me he was a restless person with a large sense of humor.
Although I didn't know him well, my most memorable moment with him came at a 70th birthday party hosted by HBS Professor Jay Lorsch and his wife for Fritz Roethlisberger in 1968 in their modest digs that one could rent in those days from Harvard University. While several of us were talking with Fritz, Warren, who had borrowed a large pair of scissors, walked up and cut off Fritz's tie, citing an old custom of some kind. Fritz, always gracious, laughed it off and made it a centerpiece of fun during the rest of the party while Warren basked in the notoriety of his deed.
Bennis wrote prolifically and well. Much of the writing dealt with shortcomings he found in the behavior of leaders practicing in the last half of the twentieth century. Especially in his book On Becoming a Leader, he was critical of the short-sighted, me-oriented nature of too many leaders of that time. He later became more optimistic about the future of leadership behaviors as he continued to set and maintain high standards for the practice. He also put into practice what he preached, advising many well-known leaders in both business and government and serving as president of a large university for a time. In his later years, Bennis served as the editor of an influential series of books, many of which dealt with organizational culture, a matter of interest to him throughout his career.
My own favorite of Bennis's writing is a curious little book called Geeks & Geezers. It was the subject of one of these columns in 2002. (Can it really be that long ago?) In it, he and Robert Thomas describe a study involving intensive interviews with a well-known group of geezer/leaders (the "grandparents of the geeks") and much younger entrepreneurs, presumably leaders undergoing on-the-job development. They found several similarities: members of both groups are "avid learners," they "forever strain to transcend limits," and "every leader … in our study had undergone at least one intense, transformational experience." They found differences too: (1) "geeks have bigger and more ambitious goals than geezers did at the same age," (2) geeks place far more emphasis on achieving balance in their work, family, and personal lives," and (3) "geeks are far less likely than geezers to have heroes or to have had their image of a successful leader shaped by a hero."
Of perhaps greatest interest to me was that these successful geezers were still optimistic, looking forward, and learning. They exhibited what is described by the word, "neoteny," the retention of youthful qualities by adults. (It helps explain why Bennis included himself in the sample of persons studied as "geezers.")
Many of you probably have your own favorite recollections of Bennis or have been influenced by his writings. If so, what are the recollections or the influences? What is Warren Bennis's legacy? What do you think?
To Read More:
Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2003 Edition; first published in 1989).
Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders, (Boston: HBS Press, 2002).