To Become a Leader is to Become Yourself: Remembering Warren Bennis by

Warren Bennis Portrait

Photograph © Bruce Jackson, courtesy of USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Warren Bennis, an icon in the field of successful organizational leadership, died last week at the age of 89. I find myself reflective and reminiscent of his passing in a personal way. We share the same alma mater, Antioch College, and throughout my 30 years of practice in this field, I have frequently found comfort and connection with Professor Bennis’ perpetual voice in the journey of developing a personal practice of leadership.

A guiding principle on which we have built Moementum is Bennis’ notion that self-awareness is the key to developing an effective practice. As Bennis said:

The leader never lies to himself, especially about himself, knows his flaws as well as his assets, and deals with them directly.”

I have lost count of the number of times I have issued those very words to an organizational leader… “the first step is rigorous self-awareness”… as I have begun the deep inquiry that supports his or her learning and growth. It requires a great deal of courage, openness, and honesty to truly understand ones own gifts and liabilities; but only when one does so can mindful impact occur. I often find that traditional leadership training focuses on “the other,” such as understanding how your team members want to be treated, understanding strategy and analytics, or learning how to present oneself to create a certain image, rather than starting with this most basic but integral gift: know oneself.

Much of our work with leaders today focuses on helping them discover their authentic impact, and create and inspire followership. Frequently we touch on the dynamics of risk taking, and being present in a way that demonstrates healthy vulnerability. “The process of becoming a leader is similar, if not identical, to becoming a fully integrated human being,” Bennis said in an interview in 2009. Both, he said, were grounded in self-discovery.

We often coach leaders through the process of facing their perfectionistic urgings to do all things flawlessly, or the tendency to spend too much time and effort worrying that they are not doing “enough.” We have fully embraced Brené Brown’s approach to developing a practice of “wholeheartedness” in which leaders can evolve attributes and skills that meaningfully communicate their passion, or as Bennis said, “give hope and inspiration to other people.” We frequently work with tools and behaviors required to build trust, and it was Warren Bennis who said, “Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work.”

Bennis was troubled by what he saw as the prolific lack of leadership in the late 20th century in all quarters: business, government, academic, and the military. In his book “On Becoming a Leader” he spoke clearly about corporate leadership (particularly corruption), extravagant executive compensation and undue focus on quarterly earnings over long-term benefits, all of which Bennis believed eroded individual businesses, and society at large. His wise voice is eerily accurate in foreshadowing the business casualties we have seen in recent decades, and precise in its prediction of what faults would bring down business icons, and shake up international governments and institutions of our era.

We find at Moementum that even after 30 years of practice, we still require face-to-face interaction with our clients most of the time in order to effectively elevate and stimulate the level of insight, reflection and accountability that great leaders require to meaningfully evolve. In the 80’s and 90’s while working as a corporate training specialist, I remember the billions of dollars spent to develop virtual and technology-based learning in all organizational realms. While these efforts have fostered helpful innovations such as Skype, ultimately it is Bennis’ voice that I hear, reminding us that “learning in face-to-face community, as humans have evolved to do over hundreds of thousands of years, may always be the ideal. Especially in an endeavor that is as relationship driven as business.”

My business partner and I often say to one another and to clients “there is no rocket science” in what we do—most of the tools, techniques, and approaches we hold to create healthy cultures, grow excellent leaders and elevate strong partnerships are already invented, tested and true. And so we find that the foundational elements of our practice stem from two basic questions that I learned in grad school, probably from Bennis:

Who am I?

Who am I with you?

In my lifetime there have been few who have given our firm, and me personally, so much inspiration and pragmatic advice as Professor Warren Bennis. He spoke what was true for him personally, and shared his vast experience of what was true for organizations small and large. From his spiritual reflections such as, “Leaders must encourage their organizations to dance to forms of music yet to be heard,” to his named steps for action, Warren Bennis’ voice has resounded in organizational effectiveness for nearly a century. His wisdom lives on in our practice and the many others out there striving to make difference. Of the numerous business books that crop up almost daily on the shelves and online, it seems to me that most are restating the profound work begun by Professor Bennis.

I am grateful for Professor Bennis’ life’s work, and his steadfast ability to say what was true in a way that was uncomplicated and pure. I am indebted to him for helping to define my professional practice and create my personal career. At Moementum, we are committed to honoring his path by helping our clients to create meaningful impact in the world; since, after all, that is the calling of great organizations. As a starting point for ourselves as practitioners, and for our wonderful clients, we will hear in our heads Warren Bennis reminding us that:

“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and also that difficult.”





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    4 Responses to "To Become a Leader is to Become Yourself: Remembering Warren Bennis"

  1. Pingback: To Become a Leader is to Become Yourself: Remem...

  2. Ron Fritz says:

    Amen, Moe. Warren Bennis was and is an inspiration and well ahead of his time.Thanks for sharing your perspective on such a great thinker on leadership. It really is as simple as that – aim past the target of ‘how can I be a more effective leader’ to the real target of ‘how can I be a better person and a more authentic me’ – and becoming a better leader will simply be a natural result.

  3. Pingback: Gregory Smith

  4. Pingback: Two Questions for Self-Reflection - Work Smart, Moementum

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