[September 29, 2016] A few days ago I was asked who is considered to be the most influential person on the topic of leadership over the past half century. When I mentioned the name Warren Bennis, I got a number of puzzled looks and understood that my audience of young middle managers didn’t know the name. Being a leader is what Bennis was all about and his academic study of leadership styles places him among the most highly regarded when it comes to advocating for less hierarchical forms of leadership.1
Bennis wrote that to become a successful leader, a person must first develop as an individual. Today we use the term resilient to describe what Bennis, at the time, argued for and he noted that leadership means learning not to be afraid of being seen as vulnerable. Howard Schultz, founder and chair of the Starbucks chain of coffee shops said that Bennis told me once that to be a great leader, you have to “leave your own ego at the door.”
Bennis challenged the prevailing wisdom of autocratic leadership by showing that humanistic, democratic style leaders are better suited to dealing with the complexity and change that characterize the leadership environment. This also meant that leaders take a different attitude to failure from run-of-the-mill managers, thinking of it not so much as the end of a phase, but rather the beginning of one instilled with the knowledge gained from the failure.
In his book “Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge,” Bennis addressed the necessary competencies for leadership to develop; building trust, the search for self-knowledge, forming a vision to provide a bridge to the future, and giving meaning to that vision. He also gave us the philosophical background to understand why leadership is a learned skill and not an inborn trait.
Here are my favorite Warren Bennis quotes:
- “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”
- “Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery.”
- “Failing organizations are usually over-managed and under-led.”
- “Leaders know the importance of having someone in their lives who will unfailingly and fearlessly tell them the truth.”
- “The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.”
- “Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work.”
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- Warren Bennis was an American professor and widely regarded as a pioneer in the field of Leadership Studies. He was a University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California. He was born in the Bronx, New York, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and was one of the Army’s youngest Infantry offices in the European theater. For more information on his career, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_Bennis