Leadership and Warren Bennis

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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4 thoughts on “A Life in Leadership

  1. What a fantastic service this blog is! Thanks to Vince Vigneri for introducing me to it through Facebook! This article definitely lays out the contrast between being the boss and being a true leader. It seems like I’m regularly learning about new and cool things (like this blog) that add to the richness of my BNI experience.

  2. Which idea resonates with me the most? Well, I like the respect idea, because I believe that even a “respect of principle” for others is a key ingredient for success.

    But I like the adaptive capacity idea the most. I work in a creative industry and one of my most loved conversations with other professionals is about adaptive capacity, because for us, it tends to be a special ability that we rely on. We take on projects not knowing the solution, but knowing we will find the solution. It’s my argument for knowing a lot about a lot of different things. Transferable knowledge is what helps you create quick solutions to unforeseen challenges.

    N.B. All the genius ideas you get, are the ones that just pop into your head. As I once said to a design theorist: “All the best ideas you get are presented to you by your subconscious. It is your conscious responsibility to fill it with as many different kinds of information as possible.”

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