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Warren Bennis, On Becoming A Leader

OK, I have to ‘fess up to being a fan of Warren Bennis, whom the Financial Times dubbed ‘The Dean of Leadership’. I chaired a leadership seminar he gave in Florida a couple of years ago and he was possibly the nicest man I have ever met: wise, generous with his insights, and he carried on an email conversation with me afterwards to help me clarify my own thoughts on leadership.

Here are some of the bits that I find most inspiring from Bennis’ book On Becoming A Leader:

Drucker on what leadership is for

As Peter Drucker has pointed out, the chief object of leadership is the creation of a human community held together by the work bond for a common purpose.

Example is all. Integrity and Authority

Emerson says, “What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.”

Authenticity: Invent yourself

I cannot stress too much the need for self-invention. To be authentic is literally to be your own author (the words derive from the same Greek root), to discover your own native energies and desires, and then to find your own way of acting on them.

On learning and Leading

* One: You are your own best teacher.
* Two: Accept responsibility. Blame no one.
* Three: You can learn anything you want to learn.
* Four: True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience

Learn by watching and emulating leaders you admire

“One thing I did when I first got here was to sit in the office of the studio head all day, day after day, and watch and listen to everything he said or did. So when writers would come, when producers would come, I would just be there. When he was making phone calls, I would sit and listen to him, and I would hear him contend with what a person in his position contends with. How does he say no to someone, how does he say yes, how does he duck, how does he wheedle and coax? I would have a yellow pad with me, and all through my first many months, any phrase I didn’t understand, any piece of industry jargon, any name, any manoeuvre I didn’t follow, any of the deal-making business financial stuff I didn’t understand, I’d write it down, and periodically I would go trotting around to find anyone I could get to answer.” (Sidney Pollack, the movie director)

Leaders and Failure / Mistakes

“In organizations where mistakes are not allowed, you get two types of counterproductive behaviour. First, since mistakes are ‘bad’, if they’re committed by the people at the top, the feedback arising from those mistakes has to be ignored or selectively reinterpreted, in order that those top people can pretend that no mistakes have been made. So it doesn’t get fixed. Second, if they’re committed by people lower down in the organization, mistakes get concealed.”

Leadership & Instinct

A part of whole-brain thinking includes learning to trust what Emerson called the “blessed impulse,” the hunch, the vision that shows you in a flash the absolutely right thing to do. Everyone has these visions; leaders learn to trust them.

Leaders & Innovation

A leader is, by definition, an innovator. He does things other people haven’t done or don’t do. He does things in advance of other people. He makes new things. He makes old things new.

It’s not about Charisma

Some would argue that the answer is charisma, and either you have it or you don’t. I don’t think it’s that simple. In the course of my study, I met many leaders who couldn’t be described as charismatic by any sort of rhetorical stretch, but they nevertheless managed to inspire an enviable trust and loyalty in their co-workers. And through their abilities to get people on their side, they were able to effect necessary changes in the culture of their organizations and make real their guiding visions.

Buy The Book: Warren Bennis,On Becoming A Leader, Random House Business Books. First published 1989.

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