Learning Leadership from Warren Bennis

This past week my colleague Warren Bennis passed.  He was an exceptional scholar, a generous mentor, an excellent teacher and speaker, who taught by example and scholarship what it means to be a true leader.  Two paragraphs from the University of Southern California memoriam captures the primary thrust of Warren’s work on leadership:

“Bennis’ work was based on the notion that truly inspiring and powerful leadership lies in promoting openness and discussion, and allowing room for others to shine. Fundamentally, he believed in valuing people, and his contributions to creating a more human and humane business world are the cornerstone of his legacy.”

“Enfolded within Bennis’ approach to teaching and scholarship was his ability to implement his ideas, and connect theory with application. This was epitomized by his observation that leadership cannot be taught, but it can be “caught.” As a leader, he taught by enactment and example. As an adviser to countless students, numerous colleagues, CEOs of major national and international corporations, he imparted wisdom by living out his leadership philosophy.”

Warren had little regard for people who flaunted their status.  He was as interested in students as he was in presidents.  He believed in providing opportunities for others to excel.  I often found articles in my USC mailbox with notes attached indicating that he thought of one of our discussions when he’d read it and so passed it along.  You wondered how he found time to think of the many people he cared about and they about him.  One day when walking back from lunch, he told me that each week he set aside time to thank people or to share articles.  It’s so easy to let opportunities like that pass, to allow our relationships to flounder because there is so much to do every day.  Warren took the time to stay connected in ways that demonstrated he’d truly thought of you and of ideas you’d shared on your last meeting.

Disagreeing with Warren fascinated him far more than mimicking his words or nodding in response.  He wanted to know why you thought differently, and learned every day from people far junior to him.

As Associate Director of The Marshall Leadership Institute and Director of the Institute’s Presidential Fellows Program, I worked closely with Warren.  Leadership for Warren was about connecting, not in a shallow way as so many of us do each day, but really touching the lives of others and being touched in return.  This is not to say that he did not stand up for what he believed.  He did.  But when I wrote The Secret Handshake he made a point of telling me that he particularly liked an idea expressed early in the book.  I’d written:

There are just too many smart, capable people out there.  The hard truth is that the ones who get ahead are usually those who know how to make highly placed people feel good about having them around.

I can’t even begin to describe the number of times Warren influenced my work and life in positive ways.  After one disappointing event, he called me at home and said, “It’s not like you to take something like this sitting down.  Feel bad for a day, maybe two, and then fight for what’s right.”  That’s what I did.

He was an exceptional man whose extensive work on leadership will influence people forever.  Some of us were fortunate to know him as a person and that was truly a gift.

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