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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Remarks by Bill George: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Warren Bennis

Yesterday I had the privilege to participate as a speaker at “Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Warren Bennis” at University of Southern California,” along with a number of speakers. It was a moving and upbeat memorial service, done with great grace and elegance, just as Warren lived his life. Warren was a great leadership scholar who have justifiably earned the title of “The Father of Leadership.” Over 600 friends, mentees and admirers joined his wife, Grace Gabe, and members of his family in celebrating this great man. Here are my remarks:

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University of Southern California, September 30, 2014

Warren Bennis was my friend, mentor and colleague. I met Warren in the late 1990s, and he has been a loyal friend ever since – always available with positive encouragement and a helping hand. He had an enormous impact on the lives of so many people in just the same way – always with kindness, deep insight, and warmth.

Warren was a giant in his intellect, his heart, and his spirit. He transformed the understanding of what it means to be a leader. Rejecting the notion that leaders are born with certain traits, Warren opened the door to the real source of leadership: within you. It is who you are. He showed us how leaders develop through their life experiences, are shaped by their crucibles, and emerge ever stronger to take on responsibilities of leadership. As he said, “The process of becoming a leader is similar to becoming a fully integrated human being.” Which is how Warren led his own life.

In his younger years he worked with some of the finest leadership thinkers of the greatest generation, Douglas McGregor, Abraham Maslow, Erik Erickson, and Peter Drucker. Just as his thinking was influenced by this generation, Warren shaped the thinking of my generation of business leaders, showing us how to develop ourselves as leaders.

I first encountered Warren’s writing in 1989 when I read On Becoming a Leader, as I was joining Medtronic. It was a revelation: finally, I had found a philosophy of leadership I could resonate with!  As Warren wrote: “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” Throughout my years at Medtronic and at Harvard, I have carried his philosophies into my work and teaching.

Warren’s influence on business leaders was widespread and profound. So many who never had the privilege of knowing him were inspired by his writings and adopted his approach to leadership. Countless CEOs have told me personally what a profound influence he had on their leadership. For that, he is known as “The Father of Leadership.”

As president of the University of Cincinnati, he said: “I realized my personal truth. I was never going to be able to be happy with positional power. What I really wanted was personal power: having influence based on my voice. My real gift is what I can do in the classroom and as a mentor.” At USC, he found his “sweet spot” for the last 35 years. What other professors do you know who are still teaching at age 89?

In December of 2000 I invited him as a guest patient to an annual Medtronic event where he graciously thanked the employees who designed and manufactured his defibrillator. Warren was fond of saying that he had Medtronic “in his heart,” and then would describe how his defibrillator saved his life half a dozen times. I once witnessed this in person at Harvard while he was speaking: The defibrillator went off, and Warren slumped to the ground, dropping his papers. Ever the gracious soul, he picked up his papers, apologized for the disruption, and continued his talk. Ten minutes later when it went off a second time, the Cambridge Fire Department escorted him to safety.

Warren gave me the courage to embark on a new career of teaching and writing. He was even arranged for us to rent his Cambridge apartment my first semester at HBS. Warren generously shared his ideas on leadership, and was executive editor on four of my books. While writing True North, Peter Sims and I spent five days with Warren going over the ideas and stories in the book. Unlike many scholars who protect their ideas, Warren genuinely wanted us to expand on his and make them fully accessible to the new generation of leaders.

In Geeks and Geezers, Warren described his philosophy with the little known term neoteny: “Neoteny is the retention of all those wonderful qualities we associate with youth: Curiosity, Playfulness, Eagerness, Fearlessness, Warmth, and Energy. Undefined by time and age, older people with neoteny are open, willing to take risks, courageous, hungry for knowledge, and eager for each new day. Neoteny keeps older people focused on all the marvelous undiscovered things to come, rather than on past disappointments. Neoteny gives you a hungry heart. It is a metaphor for all the youthful gifts the luckiest of us never lose.” This describes Warren perfectly, right to his final days.

This past April Warren asked Penny and me to discuss leadership with him in the next-to-last class he ever taught. While his physical health was declining, his mind was as sharp as ever. Over dinner that evening Penny asked Warren what he would like on his tombstone. He replied, “Generous Friend.”

Warren, a generous friend is just what you were to me and Penny, to all of us here, and thousands of friends, students, scholars, and mentees whom you influenced with kindness, buoyancy of spirit, and wisdom. We miss you deeply, but will carry your love in our hearts and your wisdom in our work. That may your greatest legacy of all.