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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Observer Culture: Warren Bennis Led by Example

Warren Bennis was one of the great pioneers in the field of leadership. Small in physical stature, he was a giant in his intellect, his heart, and his spirit. Just as Peter Drucker was the father of management, Warren was the “father of leadership.”

A lifelong scholar, in 1971 he became president of the University of Cincinnati at the height of student unrest and rebellion during the Vietnam War. He soon learned that leading a complex institution was not his sweet spot. As he reflected on the experience, “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.” Subsequently, he mentored countless students, colleagues, and friends.

We first met at the World Economic Forum in the late 1990s. He suffered from heart problems, and relied on a Medtronic defibrillator (I was CEO of the company at the time). In December of 2000 I invited him as my guest to our headquarters for a gathering of 10,000 people, where he graciously thanked the employees who designed and manufactured his defibrillator. While I respected him deeply, I never anticipated the profound influence he’d have on my life.

In 2002, my wife, Penny, and I attended a seminar Warren and Harvard professor David Gergen led at the Aspen Institute. At the time I was struggling to find a publisher for a book I was writing for developing leaders to be their authentic selves, rather than feeling they had to be celebrity leaders or emulate others.

Shortly thereafter, Warren introduced me to Jossey-Bass which became my publisher, and he included Authentic Leadership in 2003 in the Warren Bennis Signature Series. Throughout my writing process, he offered specific suggestions to improve its content, guiding me through his ideas on crucibles and ways to personalize my own stories more passionately. When I got to Part III, he suggested a radical restructuring of its content to make it come alive for readers. As he wrote in the foreword, “Timeless leadership is always about character, and it is always about authenticity.” He lived that philosophy throughout his life.

We spent many hours together, with Warren pushing me to think more critically and write more eloquently. When co-author Peter Sims and I were writing True North, he spent a solid week guiding us through the structuring of our ideas. He proposed having a representative story kick off each chapter, and then walked through each sub-section of the book with us, challenged our ideas to make them concrete and illustrated by specific examples. He even offer quotes from literature, to illustrate the text, such as this one from novelist John Barth, “The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.”

Two months before he died in 2014, Warren asked Penny and me to discuss leadership in the next-to-last class he ever taught. What other professors have you known who were still teaching at age 89? Although beset with bodily ills, his mind was sharp as ever and his warmth and humanity shone in the classroom and in our private interactions.

Over dinner that evening Penny asked what he would like on his tombstone. He replied without hesitation, “Generous Friend.” A generous friend is just what Warren was to me and many students, scholars, friends, and mentees whom he influenced with kindness, buoyancy of spirit, and wisdom.

His last book, Still Surprised, shows his photo walking barefoot on the beach with his pant legs rolled up, leaving behind large footprints in the sand – reminding me of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, A Psalm of Life:

     Lives of great men all remind us

     We can make our lives sublime,

     And, departing, leave behind us

     Footprints on the sands of time.

Unlike many scholars who jealously protect their ideas, Warren Bennis always encouraged me and others to build on his ideas and share them with leaders throughout the world. A generous friend is indeed what he was.


This article was originally published on Observer Culture