A Conversation with Warren Bennis

BOL: I hope our conversation will focus on the how-to of intervening in order to enhance the performance of organizations. You are a master of that art, but your most important work has focussed elsewhere: on understanding the nature of the organization, and how those in it can make it better. You have had a lot to say about what it takes to be effective as a leader, a follower and a team member. What does it take to assist others to be effective?

BENNIS: The short answer is I don’t really understand all that goes into developing leaders. If I had a recipe, I’d win the Nobel Prize. While there is general agreement about the QUALITIES of leadership, which I’ll get to in a minute, the question of how we grow them is moot; in any case, we’re still in the diaper age.

Most organizations, whether organizational or not-for-profit or grass roots, have in back of their collective minds–usually implicit or tacit–a number of criteria upon which they evaluate potential or emerging leaders. There are 7: technical competence (or a term I prefer, business literacy), people skills or the capacity to motivate and understand people, conceptual abilities, track record, taste which has nothing to do with buds and everything to do with the ability to choose the right people, judgment and, finally character. Those are fairly vague terms but I leave it to reader to project their own definitions on them.

There are at least two interesting problems with that list. The first is that I’ve never seen anyone derailed from top leadership because of a lack of business literacy or conceptual skills; it’s ALWAYS because of lapses of judgment and questions about character. Always. The second interesting problem is that judgment and character tend to be ignored by those responsible for educating others and are arguably difficult, or even impossible, to “teach.”

Here’s the deal: learning to be a leader is virtually the same process as becoming an integrated and healthy person. Or as Shakespeare put it, “Learning is but an adjunct of our selves.” What that means is that when we talk about “growing leaders,” we’re inevitably involved in personal stuff, personal transformation. This is why, earlier, I sounded somewhat gloomy about the prospects of “teaching” leadership.( I always put “teaching” in quotes because I don’t think you can teach it. I am equally certain that it can be learned and that terrific coaches can create some experiential set ups to facilitate learning.)

Coaching is the rub, the hard part. Giving advice or feedback that may improve the performance of the recipient while maintaining her or his self-esteem is the hard part. How can a coach learn to be supportive and not controlling? I suppose that question must come up continually for anyone in the so-called “helping professions.” Jan Halper has studied over 4,000 executives about how level and open they are in giving feedback to their “direct reports.” Almost none of them claim to be as open and honest as they should or could be. Despite the fact that that all leaders and managers have a stockpile of improvement advice that they don’t offer because they feel it won’t be followed and fear that the recipients will perceive it as a critism and a provocation of hostility. So, all too often, management turns into a manipulative art where deception, spin, maneuvering, guided ambiguiy and other small deceits and slights of the tongue replace straightforward communication. Incidentally, and not entirely inappropriate to mention at this time is that subordinates have an equally difficult time giving their bosses helpful advice. In my own research, there’s what I call the 70% factor: 70% of the hundreds of executives I’ve surveyed over the past 15 years–and it remains a constant over time–do not offer feedback or advice that is at an angle to the norms and preference of the boss, even when they know that following a certain course will lead to disaster.

So the first rule in any kind of coaching is that the coach has to engage in “deep listening. Which means that the coach must relate to the context in which the “other” is reasoning–they must “tune in” to where the other is coming from. In short, perhaps the basis of leadership is the capacity of the leader to change the mind-set, the framework of the other. That’s not easy, as I needn’t tell you for most of us, thinking that we have tuned into the other person, usually are listening most intently to ourselves.

That said, it seems to me that people learn about leadership ONLY experientially. There are two major, perhaps only two, sources for learning, the individual and the organizational setting. As far as the indivual is concerned, they must have the ambition/drive to become a leader. Without that motivation, as is true in almost every walk of life, nothing will work. I should add quickly that one must be aware of the Richard III syndrome: one has to be wary of people who can’t live without power; i.e. the drive for power without purpose.

Assuming the learner has a healthy aspiration for leadership, they must develop the capacity to learn from experience–which means the capacity to reflect. I often ask my mentees to keep a careful diary of their leadership, to provide a thick description of their “influence attempts,” following which we discuss their notes. More valuable is direct feedback. Frequently, I “shadow” the person, observe her carefully and try to supply helpful information. What most of us need, whether leaders or not, is “reflective backtalk” from people we respect.

If I’m right about the capacity to reflect on and learn from our experiences, I suspect that we learn the most facing adversity. In my own studies, I’ve found that people who face adversity and grow from it have all the makings of becoming an effective leader (and person.) One woman CEO I interviewed said “It wasn’t until I hit bottom twice that the iron entered my soul and turned into the steel and resilience I needed.”

I suppose there’s also something that can be called a “propitious moment,” when a person says something that has special resonance for you. I’m not sure that there is such a thing as “vicarious learning,” but I am sure that vicarious learning can work if it’s based on previous experience. So a novel or a play or a poem or a painting may “change our lives.” But I’m willing to wager that it was a propitious moment, based on some synchronicity between imagination and experience.

What can an organization do to facilitate and accelerate the competencies of its leaders? A few very simple things: provide terrific role models because, as we all know, modelling is one of the best ways to “teach” leadership. That goes for good and bad role models. Often, we learn the most from negative role models. Organizations should also identify and reward effective coaches. I know of none that do that. They should also rotate individuals who have the potential for leadership to a variety of roles and jobs. I’m talking about horizontal mobility not just moving UP the ladder. We learn a lot about ourselves and others by changing the ecology, the position. Incidentally, overseas experience turns out to be one of the best precursors of effective leadership.

The organization can also provide the potential leader with experiences that will benefit the learner. I’ve noticed that in organizations which pay attention and care about the development of their people, appoint them to chair a task force that consists of a wide range of people, both in terms of status and position. Leading such a group effectively relies on persuasion not coercion, on supporting, not controlling.

Well, that’s it for now. Remember my basic premise: that learning to be an effective leader is no different than learning to be an effective person. And that’s the hard part.

BOL: You’ve made exquisitely clear why it is so difficult to foster leadership. I hope you will allow me to squeeze what you have said into this nutshell: First, leadership is intertwined with “personship.” Second, the organizational context or culture typically does not encourage behaviors, like straight-talking, which are at the heart of effective leadership. As a coach of leaders, your job is to listen “deeply” to your clients’ self-report of their influence attempts and to shadow them while they work, offering direct feedback that coheres with the client’s frame of reference and at the strategic moment. If the above is approximately accurate, how about a case vignette of a successful (or unsuccessful) coaching intervention.


7 Responses to “A Conversation with Warren Bennis”
  1. Dr. D. William says:

    I require clarification about how this new format actually works. I have explored the site, but I can’t see any ongoing conversations relative to the blogs. Also, are the previous conversation in the old format still here? The archives don’t seem to have this information. The last time I was here, a major problem was the intrusion of non-mental professionals and very disruptive, hostile postings. Is there now a place to register?? Does the new design allow for only postings, but new interaction between the people posting comments. I hope I’m wrong, but this now looks like a very sterile environment. I use to be actively involved in the previous dialogues.


    • John M. Grohol says:

      Hi Doug,

      Welcome to the new BOL!

      We haven’t really gotten up to steam yet in the amount of weekly postings we’re looking for, so things are a little slow going still. The old conversations and discussions are still available under “Forum Archive.”

      We will moderate comments to ensure they contribute to the ongoing discussion, rather than take us off-topic or are asking for personal advice.

      Please check back in a few weeks as we continue to publish new articles each week. Thanks!


  2. Shay Jackson says:

    I agree that leadership can be cultivated or coached. I also believe that a person has to come to the table with strong character and vision that enables followers to trust the vision.

  3. Ann Marie Brennan says:

    I agree with Warren Bennis that leadership can be coached or cultivated as well. But I also think that the person must be “ready” to want leadership. I have a friend who is a very confident and competent teacher and has been teaching for years. But when asked to teach a workshop to mostly “newer” teachers she felt anxious and unsure. After co-teaching a workshop with me she felt she could do one solo. She did and it was great, but she would never had requested to do so on her own before the request.

  4. Deloris L. Jerman says:

    I enjoyed the Bennis article, especially the list of competencies for evaluating potential or emerging leaders. In the training/coaching of persons to fill leadership positions, we tend to focus more on knowledge and skills and less on dispositions (judgment and character). According to Bennis, “falls” from leadership positions are ALWAYS due to lapse(s) in judgment and character. Given the state of affairs at the national, state, and local levels–and within the public and private sectors–much can be learned and accomplished by following Bennis’ advice. And organizational leadership and organizations will be improved. For those interested in knowing what organizations can do to accelerate the competence of its leaders, Bennis presents a good recipe. This is a good start.

  5. Laura Macdonald says:

    I appreciated the comments made about “listening deeply.” Only when we are aware of the other person’s perspective can we understand how to help them change direction if necessary and how to lead them forward.

  6. Ofra Sixto says:

    I have a childcare centre for nearly 30 years, and in my experience I have noticed that some leadership qualities seem to be innate, while others are learned.
    I have seen children that on their first day of school, at the age of 1 year old, they showed signs of leadership. As they grew older, it was evident that these children, knew how to lead others, while also following ( a good leader is a good follower as well, right?)
    I have also realized throughout the years, that role model, and encouragement can breed leaders. Children who were shy, unassuming, afraid, timid, we were able to turn them into leaders, though not as strong as the ones that are “born leaders”, yet still leaders.
    The problem I faced is being a leader in my position as an owner of the business, to staff members. At first I was though leader, I expected results, and expected others to do things my way. Now, after many years of doing the wrong things, I learned that valuing the team efforts, and individuals, letting them know that they are important, and their work is valued and appreciated, their ideas are considered and practiced, yielded a much better results for me. I now have a team that is loyal, hard working, team players and love what they do, which is the most important thing for me, when working with children.

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