Leadership development icon Warren Bennis passes away

By Rory Cellucci on August 7, 2014

Bennis_WarrenLeadership development pioneer and longtime Global Institute for Leadership Development Co-Chair Warren Bennis has inspired generations of leaders and academics. And his recent passing has prompted many to write thoughtful tributes to him and the impact he made.

“…Just as Peter Drucker was ‘the father of management,’ Warren Bennis will be remembered as ‘the father of leadership,’” writes professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and the author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, Bill George in The Huffington Post.

“It was Warren who first said leadership is not a set of genetic characteristics, but rather the result of the lifelong process of self-discovery. That process enables people to become fully integrated human beings who know themselves and bring out the best in others. As he once wrote: ‘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.’”

In Lessons from Leadership Guru Warren Bennis Inc.com reporter Will Yakowicz writes: “Bennis learned his first leadership lessons on the battlefield during World War II as one of the youngest army lieutenants to serve in Europe. Over time he developed inspired leadership theories that disregarded “command-and-control” as a creativity killer and touted passion, integrity, curiosity, and seeing beyond quarterly numbers as drivers of success.” And he also compiles a list of the most memorable Bennis quotes including “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.”

And in “Warren Bennis: Leadership PioneerHarvard Business Review editor-at-large Julia Kirby pays Bennis the ultimate compliment: “The sad news came over the weekend that Warren Bennis has died. For us at HBR it is the loss of a longtime author and friend. Many, many more will miss him, too, as a teacher and adviser.

“Let’s define ‘longtime’: Warren’s first piece in HBR appeared in 1961. It was called a ‘Revisionist Theory of Leadership,’ and that is what it delivered. A half-century later, its message does not sound so revisionist: that in a business environment marked by increasing complexity and constant change, organizations require not autocrats at the top, but leaders with more humanistic, democratic styles. (For shorthand, Bennis liked the phrase from ‘macho to maestro.’) At the time, however, corporate titans were very unlikely to see things that way.

“Warren liked to call himself lucky. In the last piece he wrote for HBR, a personal reflection, he even claimed that the keys to his successful career were ‘inglorious’ ones: ambition, insecurity, labor, and luck. But as the old saying goes, people can make their own luck. The fact is that he seized on leadership as a topic when it wasn’t taken seriously, and stayed with it as it rose in legitimacy – indeed, helped to make it important as his own insights evolved based on constant, thoughtful interactions with real leaders…”

Those are just a few memories. Below, please share how the ideas and teachings of Warren Bennis have impacted you.

Posted in Blog

About Rory Cellucci

Rory Cellucci is passionate about advancing women leaders.
3 comments on “Leadership development icon Warren Bennis passes away
  1. Alyssa says:

    What sad news. Warren’s work will inspire those looking to develop as leaders for generations to come. The world is lucky to have had him. We are better for it.

  2. James Macdonald says:

    Reading the news of Warren’s passing away today struck me at a level that was like losing a family member or closest friend. To me Warren had been my most trusted teacher of true leadership in the most profound ways possible for decades. I would read books and various articles in the HBR and would lead others to do the same. I always found it interesting that the forward he wrote in so many books were frankly often the the most important and poignant content found in the authors offering.
    Warren shared so many gifts but none more important to me than being a perfect living example of what it meant to be truly present. His being present in a conversation had a unique ability to allow the individual engaged in that conversation to feel far brighter than you knew you honestly were. His excitement over new ideas or the application of leadership theory burned bright in those “movie star eyes and beautiful smile”. When you spoke with Warren in a room of hundreds it was amazing how all others faded away and it was just the two of you conversing.
    When observing him speaking with others I was always impressed with his ability to take notice of even the simplest thing that made that individual feel not only connected but for that moment truly special. I recall a GILD session when he had responded with great knowledge to a gentleman from South America who asked a question about a very detail governmental issue. Once the conversation was ended and the man man appeared fully satisfied he had gotten an answer to an important problem he had been dealing with, Warren complimented him on the belt the man was wearing. Warren noticed it was not only a unique animal skin but also a rather rare form of tanning the hide that was the pride of a small village Warren had once visited. Warren was not only correct, he allowed that man to feel that pride well up into a brilliant smile. Warren being present in even the smallest details was a magical thing to witness.
    My first year at GILD I had waited until nearly the end of the week before approaching Warren to ask him for just 5 minutes of his time. I wanted him to direct my reading for some research I was doing at the time. I had recently moved to the Village of Sandwich on Cape Cod and had observed the number of successful men and women who had retired early in a quest to spend as many days Golfing as humanly possible. When I spoke with them many, they admitted they found themselves bored out of their minds. I had also observed a number of teens who were bored with school and life in general except for their never ending thirst for the use of new technology. I was looking for a way to introduce these two groups to see whom might benefit most. When I shared my idea Warren immediately laughed and said he was working on an idea he had with the working title of “Geeks and Geezers” which as it turned out would be released the following year. My request for “5 Minutes” of his time turned into what I think of now as the greatest 2:45 conversation I ever had.
    A few weeks later I was headed to Trinidad to work on a project to introduce better Leadership in a Project Environment. Just prior to leaving for the airport I picked up the mail and found a package from Warren containing a copy of “Managing the Dream” with a lovely personal message on the inside cover. Later that week as I finished reading the book, while staying at the “Crews Inn Hotel & Yachting Centre”, in the last page of the book I found an invitation from Warren to contact Phil Harkins so that I could sign up as a Faculty Member at the 2001 GILD. Yet again the ever Present Warren gifted me with an opportunity that has changed my life and enriched it forever.
    With great sadness and even grater love I bid you peace Warren… for me class is still in session.

    • Bill Springer says:

      Dear James:
      Thanks for taking the time to share your story. Warren will be missed indeed.
      Bill Springer
      Senior Content Editor

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