Last month we lost a man known as the leader of leaders – Warren Bennis (1925-2014). The imprint he left has shaped what we know today about leadership.
No matter which book on leadership you read – technical or practical – scattered across the pages is the name Warren Bennis. His recent passing is like the falling of a giant oak. When leadership is discussed in any serious tone, rarely is his name not brought up.
Just as Peter Drucker is known as “The Father of Management”, so also Warren Bennis is known as “The Father of Leadership.” Forbes Magazine once referred to him as “the dean of leadership gurus.”
If I could summarize his thoughts in one sentence it would be “every organization and every leader should be creating an environment where people are deploying their best self.”
Mick: You use the word “neoteny” in describing successful leaders. What does neoteny mean?
Dr. Bennis: “Neoteny” is a biological word having to do with natural selection. It’s having the youthful characteristics of an animal in old age. In humans it’s the raised eyebrows in curiosity – that sense of wonder. I talk about this in my book, “Geeks And Geezers”. Both the successful younger and older people had this. These are the people who keep living and never have enough learning in their lives. They keep putting themselves in situations where they will learn. They seek adventure. They’re first class noticers with what’s going on around them. You notice when it’s not in people – they’re living, but they’re dead.
Mick: When did it first occur to you that you were a leader?
Dr. Bennis: It was in college, where our president, Douglas McGregor (president, M.I.T., “Theory X, Theory Y”), had a great impact on me. We need to be reflective and understand the human condition. So I recruited him. I tell my students to stalk mentors, and I stalked Douglas McGregor.
Mick: You talk about the crucible of learning. What do you mean by crucible, and why is that important?
Dr. Bennis: A crucible is a trial, a test, and we have them all the time. In my graduate class at the Kennedy School at Harvard, there was one student who said he’d never had a crucible. I challenged that. The truth was that he had not observed them. He had lots of crucibles. Everyday in every organization there are crucibles going on organically as we live and breath. Sometimes they are profound, as with Mandela being imprisoned for over 20 years, or being in the wilderness for 40 years, just wandering in circles. So some are unmistakable.
Mick: Can they be invisible to others as they become psychological and emotional?
Dr. Bennis: Yes. And you can’t compare one person’s crucible to another, because they come out of your context. I want to tell you something bold. What we’ve discovered in our research is that how one copes and transcends adversity are the identical qualities needed for leadership.
Mick: You’ve observed countless leaders and have seen a lot of crashes. Is there any pattern in leaders you’ve seen fail?
Dr. Bennis: A key blunder is in not listening to their network. I find that listening, and knowing who to listen to, are the most frequent and often the most fatal mistakes made. The paradox is that part of this comes from success. Habit is a great deadener. And success is an even greater deadener.
Mick: Can anybody become a leader?
Dr. Bennis: If they want to. The idea that leaders are born and not made is both dangerous and a copout. The question really is, do you want to take on the responsibilities of serving people? Do you want to wake up everyday with a list of people who want to see you? Who need to see you? Who should see you? Many people want to be leader, but not as many want to do leader.
Mick: What should we be looking for in the hiring of people?
Dr. Bennis: I think IQ is interesting. But that’s not the focus. What I want is a person who wants to learn, a person who has an appropriate degree of ambition (hard to define), a person who really wants to make a difference in their world. I want to get to the root of their value system. I want decent caring people who want to give as well as take from society.
Mick: You’ve written 30 books, what would you most like to be remembered for?
Dr. Bennis: I would like to be remembered – not so much for the books I’ve written – but for being Generous Company.
Warren Bennis answers these and many more questions in the televised interview.
His accolades are monumental — mentouring five US Presidents, at 19 one of the youngest platoon leaders in the Battle of The Bulge, planning his next book at age 89 (a timely book about political courage), and a charm that rivals any international idol. Absolutely brilliant! But the cornerstone of his legacy was how he valued others. He inspired openness and created an atmosphere where others would shine— where we are inspired to become a better version of ourselves.