A Leadership Guru’s Legacy

As an infantry officer during World War II, leading a platoon of soldiers through harrowing combat during the Battle of the Bulge, Warren G. Bennis learned firsthand what it took to become an effective leader. Following his service (during which he was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart), Bennis began his academic career, in which he became one of the world’s foremost authorities on leadership and organizational development. Late last week, Bennis passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 89.

Yesterday the University of Southern California, where Bennis spent 35 years on the faculty of its Marshall School of Business, released a statement from USC President C.L. Max Niklas commemorating his many accomplishments:

Warren Bennis was a visionary whose transformational contributions to the business world have shaped the fundamental concepts of effective leadership. Professor Bennis was one of a rare and esteemed group of pioneers, able not only to anticipate the demands of a changing world, but also guide the direction of this change through his exceptional scholarship, teaching and mentoring.”

Bennis wrote nearly 30 books during his career, the most famous of which was On Becoming a Leader, a bestseller that is considered a veritable bible among leadership-development experts. His memoir, An Invented Life, was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. Bennis was notable for his belief that leaders are made, not born, writing that “the process of becoming a leader is similar, if not identical, to becoming a fully integrated human being.”

Leaders, he wrote, must be passionate, intensely curious, honest with themselves and be able to inspire hope and passion in others. They must have a guiding vision for the mission they’re responsible for and be willing to take risks and learn from mistakes. From On Becoming a Leader:

The leader never lies to himself, especially about himself, knows his flaws as well as his assets, and deals with them directly. … The leader wonders about everything, wants to learn as much as he can, is willing to take risks, experiment, try new things. He does not worry about his failures but embraces errors, knowing he will learn from them.”

Bennis was an adviser and mentor to many CEOs and U.S. Presidents, including Starbucks CEO Howard D. Schultz, according to the New York Times. He was well known for the adage that “leadership cannot be taught, but it can be ‘caught.’ ”

Although Bennis expressed dismay in On Becoming a Leader that corporate leadership appeared to be weakening due to extravagant executive compensation and a focus on the short-term at the expense of the long-term, he expressed more optimism in a piece he later wrote for Forbes in which he described the next generation of business leaders as “the Crucible Generation” who are less arrogant and more respectful than their predecessors:

The truth may be that history, in its kindness, gave this new generation a grand crucible challenge, as it did my own. … There are reasons enough for optimism. In just the past several years I have seen my classes of aspiring leaders move from an interest in endeavors characterized by self-interest toward a sense of shared responsibility for our society and world.”

 

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