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Leadership Warren Bennis Style

Last week, University of Southern California University and Distinguished Professor Warren Bennis, known as the father, dean and guru of leadership, passed.  He was a dear colleague and friend, an exceptional scholar, a generous mentor, an excellent teacher and public speaker who taught by example and scholarship what it means to be a true leader. This paragraph 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."

It is one thing to believe in valuing people and quite another actually to live that belief; Warren did so.  He had little regard for gatekeepers who flaunted their status or used it to restrict access to people who might benefit from his experience (and he from theirs) no matter their age or position.  “What can you do for me” was not a part of Warren’s personality.  When young people succeeded, his eyes lit up and he rejoiced with them.

From his years in the military, Warren learned that no one becomes an outstanding leader on his or her own.  He credited his superior officer with saving his life by teaching him how to survive under fire. 

Throughout his time on earth, Warren retained that strong desire to learn.  Several times, after giving a terrific speech or presentation, he would ask me “Was that all right?” and he would mean it!  He’d talk about what he could have done differently.  Even as audience members moved to spend a few moments with him, Warren would be thinking of ways to improve.

How many leaders do you know who actually mull over their conversations with people long after they’ve ended?  Many people in high positions rush hither and yon, measuring the value of those with whom they must pass some time.  Not Warren.  He found value in everyone and not just for the moment.

I had the privilege of working closely with Warren at USC’s Marshall Leadership Institute and its Presidential Fellows Program.  He conveyed to our students that a sense of humility is a fundamental aspect of leadership as is openness, dedication, flexibility and integrity.  In his own areas of leadership, he didn’t see himself as particularly fearless, nor that the best leaders are.  He wrote of being fearful at times, which to me seemed more akin to being wise.

He understood politics in business and government and appreciated the need to work with, rather than against, those with whom you disagree.  Unfortunately, that crucial lesson has been disregarded in far too many of America’s inner circles.  He worked with presidents and leaders to alter that.

Whenever he spoke, he held the attention of all in any room because of his depth of knowledge, memorable stories, and, as Marty Kaplan pointed out, his exceptional sense of style. 

Warren wouldn’t like to read that everything he touched turned to gold.  It would not reflect the extraordinary study and work he put in every day.  It would fail to convey his introspection and dedicated research into observations that allowed him to teach us so much about leadership.  He learned throughout his life – sometimes the hard way.  From such experiences he developed empathy manifested in his concern for people whose lives he touched and changed. 

Some of us were fortunate enough to know him as a person. All of us can know him, to a large extent, through his many books and other works.  It would be difficult to not come away as better leaders and better people.  For Warren, after all, those two things were inseparable.

Photo: USC

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