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A Tribute To Warren Bennis, A

Leader Of Leaders

Steve Denning
Senior Contributor
I write about Agile management, leadership, innovation & narrative.

Warren Bennis passed away on July 31 at the age of 89. He was, my fellow Forbes
contributor, Rob Asghar, has described him, “The 'Dean' of Leadership Gurus.” As
author or co-author of some thirty books, including On Becoming a Leader (1989)
and Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge, he influenced and inspired a generation
of leaders and scholars.”

I was one of those so influenced and inspired. I had read Warren’s books years ago
when I was a manager at the World Bank. Not having met Warren, I thought of him as
some kind of a towering, even intimidating, intellectual figure.

In 2008, I met him and we had a number of conversations at a workshop organized by

the movie executive, Peter Guber, in California. I was pleasantly surprised to find him a
charming, personable, self-deprecatingly modest person, and a delight to talk with on a
wide array of subjects.

In 2010, I wrote the following review of his captivating memoir, Still Surprised: A
Memoir of a Life in Leadership.

I don’t like memoirs. I particularly don’t like memoirs by executives, because they are
usually full of accounts of the wonderful things they did, rather than what actually
happened. I especially don’t like memoirs by writers: what can they tell us that they
haven’t already said much better in their books? So I approach a memoir by someone
who has been an executive and a writer with a certain sense of foreboding.

As it happened, I couldn’t put “Still Surprised” down. It’s an amazingly frank account
of an amazingly varied life. As solider, student, academic, university president, guru,
author, Warren Bennis went everywhere on the planet. Idealistic, ethical and people-
oriented by nature, he offers us a remarkably detailed account of the life he lived, the
choices he made, and the consequences of those choices.
The account is modest and charming. His big accomplishments and books are
mentioned almost in passing. His passion for being a leader, not merely talking about
leadership, comes through. One learns how he encountered and overcame prejudice at a
number of points of his career. One sees how the depth and breadth of his personal
experiences were the forge from which his leadership writing emerged.

Through these pages, one meets many of the great names in management, leadership
and psychology, like Douglas McGregor, Stanley Milgram and Kurt Lewin. We learn
what sort of people they were and how they interacted with each other. In the process,
their writings also come alive for us afresh.

The world is lucky to have had someone like Warren Bennis. The world is even luckier
now that he has written this wonderful memoir of that life, so that we can live it once
again with him.

Highly recommended.

Warren himself replied with his usual charm:

“Steve, I couldn't be more thrilled reading your loving review of my latest (and I think-
cough-my best). Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Warren.”

Warren epitomized the view of a leader as someone who not only made “people feel
that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery,” but actually put forward,
and implemented, a vision of leadership in which that was a reality, not just a feeling.

His principled concept of leadership was as far as it is possible to be from the shallow,
money-seeking, instrumentalist view of management and leadership that is current in
big business today.

Although Warren was by nature a kind and open person, he didn’t hesitate to take on
sensitive issues and to swim against the tide. A good example is his 2005 article in
Harvard Business Review as to why business schools had lost their way. This wasn’t his
main subject of research and focus, bit he spoke up about it in a powerful and
courageous way.

Warren's life and writings epitomized Peter Drucker’s view of management as one of
the liberal arts. “‘Liberal’ because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-
knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; ‘art’ because it is practice and application…
management will increasingly be the discipline and the practice through and in which
the ‘humanities’ will again acquire recognition, impact, and relevance.”

The world is poorer for Warren’s passing. The challenge for us is to carry on his work.