The Remarkable Legacy of Warren Bennis

With the passing of Warren Bennis this past Thursday, a giant oak has fallen with an impact felt throughout the world. Small in physical stature, Warren was a giant in his intellect, his heart, and his spirit. Like the oak, Warren had deep roots that carried his wisdom and nourished blossoms that made the world more beautiful and humane.

Just as Peter Drucker was “the father of management,” Warren Bennis will be remembered as “the father of leadership.” 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.

Warren’s early life was deeply influenced by his association at Antioch College and later MIT with Douglas McGregor, author of The Human Side of Enterprise. While in Cambridge, Warren connected with Abraham Maslow (“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”), Peter Drucker, Paul Samuelson, and Erik Erikson, whose theories on the eight stages of human development influenced Warren’s own “generativity” in his later years (Erikson’s Stage 7).  Many of today’s influential leadership authors like Tom Peters, David Gergen, Jim O’Toole, Bob Sutton, Jeff Sonnenfeld, and Doug Conant are indebted to Warren for their ideas.

Warren Bennis’ life had its ups and downs. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1962. Thirty years later, he married his first sweetheart, psychiatrist Grace Gabe. In the early 1970s he was president of the University of Cincinnati during turbulent years for college presidents. There he realized he did not enjoy the transactional aspects of being president. As he said in a long interview he granted for my book, True North: “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 or as a mentor.” Following his 1979 heart attack, Warren returned to teaching and writing, joining the faculty at the University of Southern California. He went on to write almost 30 books.

Personally, Warren was my mentor, friend, and intellectual colleague. He gave me the courage to become a writer. He generously shared his ideas on a whole new approach to leadership based on being authentic. He encouraged me to develop this thinking into the idea of True North. Warren was the editor on all four of my best-selling books, whose aim has been to influence the new generation of leaders to lead organizations with a clear sense of purpose, to serve others, and make this world a better place.

As I was joining Medtronic in 1989, I read Warren’s classic, On Becoming a Leader. For the first time an author described the kind of leader I wanted to be: purpose-driven, values-centered, passionate, and resilient. His book shaped my approach to leading Medtronic long before I considered writing about these ideas.

I first met Warren in the late 1990s when we were together at the World Economic Forum. My wife Penny and I had a very stimulating dinner with him and David Gergen, hosted by Dan Vasella, then CEO of Novartis. Warren suffered from heart problems, and had recently had a Medtronic defibrillator implanted. 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 in front of 10,000 people.

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 the Harvard Kennedy School where Warren was doing a program with James MacGregor Burns. The defibrillator went off – it feels like getting kicked in the chest by a horse – while Warren was speaking. He 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. Nevertheless, Warren continued his work unflaggingly for the next decade.

In 2002 Penny and I attended a seminar led by Warren and David Gergen at The Aspen Institute. At the time I was eager to write a book on my experiences at Medtronic, but was struggling to find a publisher. My intent was to incorporate many of the ideas I first learned from Warren into a practical approach to developing leaders that enabled people to be their authentic selves, rather than emulating others.

Warren encouraged me to broaden this concept into a book on Authentic Leadership. Ultimately, it was published by Jossey-Bass as part of the “Warren Bennis Signature Series”, with Warren as the executive editor. In his Foreword, Warren wrote, “Timeless leadership is always about character, and it is always about authenticity.” He closed by paying me one of the greatest compliments of my life, “Bill George will be remembered as much, perhaps more, for this book as for his extraordinary leadership achievements extending over four decades.”

In the midst of writing True North, Peter Sims and I spent five days with Warren at his home in Santa Monica going over the conceptual ideas and many of the stories we used in the book. Unlike many great scholars who protect their ideas, Warren genuinely wanted me to expand on his and make them fully accessible to a new generation of leaders, which he later called “the crucible generation.” Warren’s notions of crucibles and purpose-driven leadership permeate True North.

This past April my wife Penny and I had the privilege of participating with Warren in the next-to-last class he ever taught at USC, as he interviewed us about leadership. 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, “Gracious Friend.” Warren was a feminist, always trying to develop women leaders. He had a special relationship with Penny. His wife Grace told us after he died that he was so pleased Penny had referred to him as “the older brother she wished she had.”

Warren’s legacy will be found in the leadership of the people he touched personally with inspiration, kindness, and thoughtful mentoring. After his True North interview, Warren emailed: “When asked what advice I would give to young leaders about preparing for the future, I recalled a poem by John Cage:

We carry our homes within us, which enables us to fly.”