Remembering leadership sage Warren Bennis

(Handout image, courtesy of University of Southern California)
(Handout image, courtesy of University of Southern California)

Warren Bennis, who died Thursday in Los Angeles at age 89, was once called the "dean of leadership gurus," a description that unfortunately stuck.

I say "unfortunately" because, for Bennis, there was never any kind of shtick. There was no silver bullet or four-box matrix or slide deck offering an oversimplified how-to guide to leadership. This giant among leadership experts — I take no exception to the "dean" part — was a thinker and an adviser, but not a guru. He wrote and talked about leadership as if the answers were still being shaped, even in his experienced mind.

He was a thoughtful, genuine, and always engaged man whom I came to know in these past eight years as a reporter covering management and leadership.

"I am as leery as anyone of the idea of leaping to conclusions, or making more of evidence than is demonstrably true," Bennis wrote in his influential 1989 classic, On Becoming a Leader. "To an extent, leadership is like beauty: It's hard to define, but you know it when you see it."

For Bennis, leadership was a personal journey, something individual and introspective that must be learned through life's experiences. He was a staunch believer that leaders are made not born, formed out of "crucible" moments and struggles that prepare them to lead. As he wrote in On Becoming a Leader — essential reading for anyone — leadership is about self-discovery and self-expression. "Before people can learn to lead, they must learn something about this strange new world."

In the nearly nine extraordinary decades of his own life, Bennis learned plenty that taught him about leadership. He commanded a platoon on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. After a bachelor's degree at Antioch College, graduate school and a position on the faculty of M.I.T., he had the radical idea (at least for many theorists of organizational behavior) that it would be a good thing to actually try his hand at leading the organizations he was analyzing.

So in the late 1960s, he became a provost at the State University of New York-Buffalo, where he helped try to overhaul a university while managing student protests. He went on to become the president of the University of Cincinnati, where he had to deal with an ethical crisis involving radiation treatment experiments in the medical school and convince voters to turn the municipally funded university into a state institution.

After a year living on a houseboat in Sausalito, where Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand was a neighbor, Bennis moved to the University of Southern California's business school in 1979 and "back into adulthood," as he wrote in his engrossing 2010 memoir, Still Surprised. There he would advise CEOs and American presidents, found a leadership institute, mentor students and work on the majority of his nearly 30 books, which have explored the importance of judgment, the need for transparency, the importance of being adaptive and the secrets of genius teams.

While he wasn't always the easiest collaborator, says Noel Tichy, a University of Michigan management professor and co-author with Bennis of the 2007 book Judgment, Bennis "had the unique ability over the years of continuing to push the boundaries. He was always ready with a fresh angle and insight that wasn't academic mumbo jumbo."

My own experiences talking with him over the years were similar. I would e-mail looking for an idea for a story, and he'd nearly always write back, often with a suggestion or with a recommendation for a book to read. And when I'd call him to get his thoughts on CEO pay or a new management fad, he wouldn't just spout bullet points from his latest book; he would ask prodding, thoughtful questions about the topic and, often, about my own career. While we never met in person, his charm and enthusiasm were evident even over a distant phone line. And though he didn't always meet deadlines, he made up for it in the end.

One example from 2012 stands out. Here at On Leadership, we had asked him to weigh in on a series we were doing about film directors. Being a lifelong fan of movies and situated in the epicenter of the film industry, he readily agreed. On the day the piece was due, I got several emails from him asking me to be patient — a draft was coming. (Bennis, always the mentor, revealed in the last e-mail that a student had stopped by his office.) We ultimately decided to turn the tardy piece into a slideshow about his favorite lessons on leadership from movies and directors, and the end result was vintage Bennis: insightful, great storytelling that expands our understanding of the issue.

He will be missed.

You can read through the archive of leadership pieces he wrote for the Post here:

ARCHIVE | Warren Bennis on leadership

And the slideshow is here:

Leadership goes to the movies

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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