Reflections from the Leadership Guru

Warren Bennis, who died last week, has been called the father of leadership. He argued leaders are made, not born.The distinction between leaders and managers is crisper thanks to Warren Bennis who said, “The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”

Bennis, often called the father of leadership, died last week at age 89 after a life of advising business executives and U.S. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan.

I often referenced Bennis in my strategic communications course for MBA students at Willamette University, citing his belief that leaders are made, not born. “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born, that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

Bennis believed leaders embrace failure, using it as motivation for eventual success.

He extolled integrity. Self-delusion blurs vision, obscures goals and sends strategy down the wrong track.  “Leaders know the importance of having someone in their lives who will unfailingly and fearlessly tell them the truth.”

Bennis preached the value of trust, which he called the “lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work.”

And Bennis celebrated passion. “The leader who communicates passion gives hope and inspiration to other people,” he wrote in On Becoming a Leader.

Leadership has fascinated me, perhaps from the time an elementary school teacher told my parents that I had leadership potential, but wasn’t exerting any. I wondered then, and now, what exactly leadership is. Bennis, along with Tom Peters and Peter Drucker, helped fill in some of the blanks for me. “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.”

Whether managing by walking around or intentionally cultivating leadership traits, becoming a leader is a hard, continuous struggle. And once you become a leader, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll remain one.

In Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, Doris Kearns Goodwin traces how an ambitious young man learned the levers of power as a receptionist for the president of his college. He assimilated the issues, concerns and fears of everyone who showed up asking for an appointment. He learned tit-for-tat by being in charge of assigning parking spaces.

Johnson perfected his leadership skills in Congress and as President, resulting in landmark legislation on civil rights and the creation of Medicare. Yet he deserted the leadership qualities he had developed over a lifetime when he isolated himself in the vain pursuit of victory in Vietnam. He believed what he wanted to hear and turned a deaf ear to critics. He lost sight of the big picture as he obsessively stared at maps and ordered bombing raids on specific, ill-defined targets.

Garry Wills, in his book Certain Trumpets/Nature of Leadership, argues that leaders are only leaders when they attract followers. In Wills’ view, leadership is a joint enterprise with followers. Followers don’t blindly follow; they willingly join leaders they trust.

Bennis recognized the transitory nature of leadership. He chided U.S. corporate leaders for temerity, corruption and excessive compensation. He challenged business schools to produce leaders, not bosses. He also could see reasons for optimism, such as what he called the “Crucible Generation” that was determined to win respect, not just obedience.

He leaves behind his own trail of hope for aspiring leaders. “There are two ways of being creative. One can sing and dance. Or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers flourish.”