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In Memory of a Leadership Pioneer – Warren Bennis

August 31, 2014

Updated January 17, 2017

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During a period of turbulent political change, whether in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia, it helps to pause and reflect on leadership and its pivotal role in society. Warren Bennis’ role as a leadership pioneer spanned several decades. His passing over two years ago was a huge loss to the leadership field.


This summer saw one of the world’s most respected leadership experts depart our planet, heading off to join other past leadership giants. Warren Bennis died on July 31 at age 89.

Growing up in a Jewish family in New Jersey, Bennis was only 18 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where as one of its youngest officers he was awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star while fighting in Europe. After World War II, he earned a B.A. at Antioch College (1951) and shortly afterwards a Ph.D at MIT (1955). His area of study was the social sciences and economics, and later in his career he held the position of chair of the Department of Organizational Studies. His studies at Antioch put him in contact with Douglas McGregor , president of the college, who later earned recognition for his work on Theory X (scientific management) and Theory Y (humanist management). It was McGregor who facilitated Bennis’ entry to MIT.

Bennis maintained his close attachment to academia by serving as both university president and provost, and teaching at Harvard, Boston University, the Indian Institute of Management at Calcutta and INSEAD. He also was an advisor to four U.S. presidents and consulted for several Fortune 500 companies.

In 1967 he shifted his focus from management theory to its practice, thus launching him into a long list of books on leadership over several decades. In total he wrote some 30 books on leadership, with such titles as: The Leaning Ivory Tower (1974), Beyond Counterfeit Leadership (1997), Managing People is Like Herding Cats (1999) and Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership (2010). One book that is viewed as a classic is On Becoming a Leader (1989).

Bennis 1 Bennis was also a prolific contributor to periodicals. He had the ability to take the abstract concept of leadership and make sense out of it, bringing it into the real world. His founding of the field of leadership studies further exemplifies the respect he garnered from leadership practitioners who loved his no-nonsense approach.

Bennis’ personal philosophy of leadership was that leaders are made and not born. Leadership is an array of skills to be developed and honed over one’s life, making continuous learning a vital part of one’s being.

Warren Bennis’ leadership peer over the decades was the late Peter Drucker, sometimes referred to as the father of modern management. Drucker, who died at age 95 in November 2005, was a sharp contrast to Bennis, the latter being articulate, energetic in conversation and handsome. Drucker, also a trained economist like Bennis, growled when he spoke in his slow, methodical manner. Both men were brilliant in their respective ways. At an encounter in the late nineties in Santa Monica, Drucker spoke about followership, while Bennis stressed leadership. Both men were right, just on different sides of the same coin.

Our world is that much poorer in intellect now that another giant has left us.

For a warm tribute to a remarkable man, read this column from Forbes.

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Leaders must encourage their organizations to dance to forms of music yet to be heard.

– Warren Bennis (March 8, 1925 – July 31, 2014)

This post is dedicated to my cousin, Zach, who just returned from a nine month tour with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2014 12:43 pm

    Has he written any particular books that you would recommend?

    • September 7, 2014 11:23 pm

      Perhaps On Becoming a Leader would be Bennis’ foundational book to read. For a lighter read try Managing People is Like Herding Cats. I haven’t read his memoir, but suspect it would be quite revealing.

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