In Praise of Warren Bennis

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for over a year… a look back at the writings and career of Warren Bennis, an early leadership guru who wrote about the topic for nearly 50 years.  Bennis was born in 1925 and grew up in a working-class family in New Jersey.  In 1943, he enlisted and served as one of the Army’s youngest infantry officers in the European theater where he was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star (an early leadership crucible, no doubt).

He enrolled at Antioch College in 1947 following his military service, where he met Douglas McGregor, one of the founders of modern management philosophy.  McGregor would take on Bennis as a protégé, a scholarly relationship that would prove fruitful when both later served as professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management (do you suppose Bennis learned a thing or two about mentoring from this critical stage of his career?).

His work at MIT in the 1960s included research into group behavior, which foreshadowed his keen interest in leadership. It’s hard to believe now (with the proliferation of leadership literature) but when Bennis published his 1961 HBR piece ‘Revisionist Theory of Leadership’, he was breaking new ground in leadership research.  In this article, Bennis challenged the prevailing wisdom by showing that humanistic, humble, democratic-style leaders were better suited to dealing with the complexity and change that leaders faced…heretofore, most of the leadership literature had basically touted the “great man” theory.

Bennis himself moved from theory to practice in 1967, taking the post of provost of the State University of New York at Buffalo and the presidency of the University of Cincinnati in 1971. My favorite Bennis story comes from his time as President at Cincinnati, when he was famously asked following a speech if he enjoyed being President.  Reflecting on the question later (and I’m paraphrasing here), Bennis noted:  “I was speechless.  In that moment, I realized I wanted to be President; but I didn’t want to do the President role.”  Bennis still uses that story to teach the power of engagement and “love what you do” lessons that come with seeking top leadership roles.  The message is simple – don’t chase the dream just because it seems like the right next role; you better want to do the work, too.

Bennis chose to return to the life of a teacher, consultant and author in 1979, joining the faculty of the University of Southern California. Most of the best-known of his 27 books followed, including the seminal works Leaders and On Becoming A Leader, both translated into 21 languages.  More recent books, Organizing Genius, 1997, Co-Leaders, 1999, and Managing The Dream, 2000, summarize Bennis’s interests in leadership, judgment, organizational change and creative collaboration. Geeks & Geezers, 2002, examines the differences and similarities between leaders thirty years and younger and leaders seventy years and older.  A recent work with Noel Tichy, titled Judgment (2007) is another Bennis classic.

Bennis’ impact on the fields of leadership and management theory is significant. The Wall Street Journal has named him one of the top ten most sought speakers on management and Forbes magazine referred to him as the “dean of leadership gurus” in 1996. The Financial Times referred to Bennis in 2000 as “the professor who established leadership as a respectable academic field.” In 2007, Business Week ranked Bennis as one of the top ten thought leaders in business.   Bennis has also was ranked as one of the top 30 Leadership professionals in the international Leadership Gurus survey for 2008.

Bennis was a champion and critic of leadership right up until his death in July of 2014.  Pick up a copy of Judgment or Geeks & Geezers, or if you’re really old school, buy On Becoming a Leader, one of the timeless books on leadership.

The Warren Bennis’ of the world are few and far between; professionals who spend their entire lives writing and consulting at a high level. In the field of leadership, they don’t get much bigger than Warren Bennis.  I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little more about him, and encourage you to read some of his work…