Warren Bennis, the leader, continues to influence countless individuals and organizations striving to serve more effectively in a time of accelerating, rampant, exhilarating disruption.
Warren Bennis is a peerless example of a leader in full.
A Life in Leadership
It is apt that Professor Bennis subtitled his final book, “A Memoir of a Life in Leadership”:
—He was, by his own account, self-created. He was the author of himself, authentic in the true sense.
—He was the beneficiary of exceptional mentor relationships. In turn, he was an exceptional mentor, in ways large and small, to many, many people.
—As a young man—19 years of age—he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, leading a platoon against Hitler’s final, ruthless Western campaign, the Battle of the Bulge.
—He returned stateside to study management. Intrepid in his intellectual outlook, impatient with customary boundaries, he was present at the creation of the emerging field of leadership studies.
—He migrated from theory to practice, serving as the president of the University of Cincinnati.
—His career was capped by three decades at the University of Southern California, where he taught in the school of business.
A Position of Authority
If leadership is ultimately about influence, how can one be most effective as a leader?
It may mean holding positions of power.
It may mean creating one’s own “position of authority,” outside of formal structures.
Warren Bennis, in his own words, crafted a position of authority through his service as an author.
As much as anyone can, he thereby led—and lived—on his own terms.
Warren Bennis’s leadership illuminates one path. Others cannot—and should not attempt to—replicate it. Nonetheless, how he conceived and implemented his vision holds many lessons.
His influence—challenging and inspiring others to achieve their potential as leaders, to add value through service—is wide and deep.
What He Was Like
When he paid tribute to lives of accomplishment, Theodore Roosevelt would often say: for all that we can learn from what they did, their greatest legacy is what they were.
In the case of Warren Bennis, what he was and what he did were intertwined.
My first personal experience with him, in 1998, was evocative of his way. His spiritual journey rendered him instinctively kind, generous, open, and encouraging.
With hopes of earning his endorsement, I sent him a draft of my first book, Reagan on Leadership. I did so with a tinge of respectful trepidation. At that time, nearly two decades ago, the controversies of Ronald Reagan’s political project were still in the air. Reagan was not viewed as favorably in general as he subsequently has become. In addition, I was keenly aware that Professor Bennis was not a fan of the Gipper. His views were forthrightly expressed in spirited writings in the 1980s.
I was delighted to hear back from Professor Bennis. It remains a tremendous honor that he supported the book. He confirmed that his worldview had not moved closer to Reagan’s. Nonetheless, he recognized Reagan’s extraordinary leadership skills. He had no trouble separating the two aspects. He had no reluctance in publicly expressing his view, crossing political lines that more timid souls, especially in academe, might heed.
Warren Bennis thereby brought me into a small place within his extraordinarily large orbit. As he did with so many others, he repeatedly offered inspiration and encouragement in real-time, on top of what he contributed in his prodigious written output.
What Would Warren Do?
We’ve all had this experience: someone we greatly admire from afar, upon meeting, kindly urges that we address them by their first name. Warren Bennis, Californian, was like this. He would suggest that people call him “Warren.” Complying with his wish, my respect for him stirred up awkwardness reminiscent of youth, but that was my issue.
As I work through questions in my life and work, I often try to imagine how people I respect might react under similar circumstances. That is not a self-regarding exercise, implying that my challenges are somehow as consequential as theirs. Neither is it to presume that I could work something out as well as they might. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that the service of some leaders continues to course through the rest of our lives over time. It’s intended as an exercise, creating value from humility and gratitude and a greater perspective. In the worst case, I’ll likely set and meet a higher standard than otherwise.
For myself, and, I expect, for many others, one of those whose example I conjure up is that of Warren Bennis.
One might well be the better for summoning his intrepid, generous, expansive spirit: What Would Warren Do?
Warren Bennis | A Life in Leadership