Warren Bennis, An Icon Passes

DSC03152Last week, Warren Bennis, an icon and mentor, passed away from natural causes at the age of 89.  I studied under Dr. Bennis at USC in the late 80’s.  I hadn’t seen him for many years until 2008 where we reconnected at the story telling event held by movie executive, Peter Guber.

We were sitting at a small round table with about five other people having lunch.  Warren looked at me curiously and said, “we’ve met before haven’t we?”  I told Dr. Bennis that it had been close to 20 years, but he sat on my doctoral committee for the qualifying exams of my program.  That’s when he looked at me and said, “I wasn’t very nice to you was I?”  I was flabbergasted that he would ask me that question.  Now the truth was that he was very, very tough on me.   His critiscims were always professional and insightful, but I always remembered him as just plain tough!

What he said next completely changed my opinion of him.

He said, “I’m sorry.  I really don’t like sitting on doctoral committees because they are a little like boot camp.  You have to put people through these difficult situations to make sure they have what it takes to justify the degree we are about to confer upon them.  It’s necessary, but it’s not really the kind of person I am.”  I acknowledged that he had been tough, but I also told him he was right in his criticisms and redirection.

What I didn’t tell him, and wish I had, was how much I respected him for telling me this now.  As we sat at this event somewhat closer to peers, he could have easily continued with the professor/student relationship.  Instead, he shared with me his inner feelings about the doctoral process we went through and humanized his actions in a way that only increased my respect for him.

We stayed in touch from time to time over the last six years.  He gave me advice when I was on the selection committee for a new President at the University of La Verne, and we met for dinner a couple years ago when he was speaking at the university.   Each time he shared nuggets with me that I will remember throughout my life.

He wrote many books on leadership.  He will always be known for his expertise in that field; however, some of us know him as a truly fine man who made a difference in many people’s lives.

A Life in Leadership

Last week I had an opportunity to go out to dinner with Dr. Warren Bennis after his presentation at the University of La Verne.   It was a true pleasure to spend time with him in a small group.  Dr. Bennis sat on my doctoral committee at the University of Southern California and I had a chance to study under him for a brief period while I was there.

For those few people who may not know who Warren Bennis is, let me suggest that you pick up almost any major book on the subject of “leadership” and I can almost guarantee that Bennis either wrote it or will be quoted in it.

His latest book is called: Still Surprised, A Memoir of a Life in Leadership. I highly recommend this book to you. Bennis is a master story teller who teaches by telling interesting and relevant stories interwoven with tangible and applicable advice.

His presentation last week took me back to my graduate school days.  I sat in the audience at the foot of an icon in the field of leadership and I took copious notes as he spoke to the group.   Here are some of the things he shared in his presentation and at dinner later that evening which impressed me:

He started his presentation by stating that “an organization is not about the buildings, it’s about the values that are passed on.”  He shared four key values relating to leadership:

  1. Showing respect is very important.  In fact, it is critical for great leadership.  We forget how sensitive people can be.  Simple things like saying hello or thank you.  Making other people feel important.  These are small gestures that can yield great results.
  2. Admitting mistakes. If you make a mistake, say “’boy’ I screwed up, but I’ll make this right.”  Telling the truth about mistakes makes us stronger.
  3. Adaptive capacity (This was my biggest takeaway of the night!) He said that it is important for us to develop the contextual intelligence to deal with challenges.  NO, we can never conceive of all the potential problems in any given situation.  This means that one’s ability to adapt is truly an important key to being a great leader.
  4. You have to want it! Being in the role of leader is something you must truly want.  If it’s not something you are passionate about – you’re in the wrong place.  Also, it is important to abdicate your ego to the needs of the organization.

During the evening, he quoted a couple of characters from Shakespeare, the first being Glendower who said, “I can call the spirits from the vast deep.” To which the second character, Hotspur, replies, “Why so can I, so can any man.  But, will they come when you call for them?”

Bennis concluded by saying that a defining characteristic of great leaders is that they have inspired followers–people who are inspired to come when called upon by a leader.

Dr. Bennis, it was an honor to spend some time with you last week.  I sincerely hope our paths cross again.

For my readers – which idea above resonates most with you?  Oh…. and pick up this book.  It’s really that good!

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