Still Surprised: A book review by Bob Morris

Still SurprisedStill Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership
Warren Bennis
Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint (2010)

Four score and counting, while his insatiable curiosity explores and his sense of wonder delights

I have read and reviewed most (if not all) of Warren Bennis’ books and most of his articles. This book is different from anything he has written previously because Bennis allows his reader to accompany him on a journey back in time. Written with the considerable assistance of Patricia Ward Biederman (who was also centrally involved with earlier works such as Organizing Genius, Transparency, and The Essential Bennis), this volume combines a wealth of historical information with Bennis’ comments on those he believes to have had the greatest influence on both his personal and professional development as well as his reminiscences on those experiences, events, successes and especially failures, defining moments, and cultural forces that serve as a frame-of-reference for the evolution of his personal and professional relationships.

Bennis was born on March 5, 1925, and grew up in Westwood, NJ. However, he does not follow a chronological sequence when developing his narrative. In the first chapter, “The Crucible of War,” he focuses on his World War Two experiences in the U.S. Army at age 19, “the rawest second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.” Following the conclusion of the war, he realized that he didn’t want his old life back and probably could not have had it even if he wanted it. “I wanted to invent a new one.” The next chapter focuses on his years as a student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The contrasts between the indescribable horrors of the battlefield and the pastoral innocence and serenity of a liberal college campus are especially striking. Although deeply grateful for the experiences both worlds provided (especially what he learned from mentors such as Captain Bessinger and Douglas McGregor) but ever restless, Bennis and his newlywed wife (the former Lucille Rose) relocated to the Boston area where he continued his formal education at MIT.

To this point and indeed until the conclusion of the book, the reader tags along as a companion to whom Bennis confides without hesitation but with selection of what (then or now) most interests him as well as what perplexes, irritates, and even angers him. At times, at least to this reader, he seems 85, at other times the age he was in a given situation or stage of his journey. The nature of the memoir is that it consists of what the memory recalls, to be sure, but also what it selects to share. Bennis remembers more than he shares, for obvious reasons, but the accumulative effect is one of candor. He maintains an informal, almost conversational tone with his reader without seeming disingenuous or self-serving.

He discusses his year abroad studying at the London School of Economics, his renewed association with MIT and the intellectual community in Cambridge, his involvement with the National Training Laboratories and its T-groups, the Institute for Management and IMEDE in Lausanne, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Southern California; also time on the faculties of Harvard and Boston University, the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIM-C), INSEAD and IMD. He also discusses his service as chairman of the Advisory Board of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, as a visiting professor of leadership at the University of Exeter (UK) and as a senior fellow at UCLA’s School of Public Policy and Social Research.

If there were a Mt. Rushmore monument for the business world, Bennis would probably be among the honorees (surely joined by Peter Drucker and hopefully by one of my intellectual heroines, Mary Parker Follett). Although Bennis shares a number of personal details, such as those concerning his various marriages, I have no interest in them as a reviewer of this book but mention those disclosures merely to suggest that — as is also true of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln — Warren Bennis is an imperfect human being.

As the title of this review suggests, I very much admire his insatiable curiosity that continues to explore and his sense of wonder that continues to encounter delight. With book in hand, and as an eager companion, I hope to share — in books yet to be written — at least some of the new adventures that await this pilgrim who is “still surprised.”

To those who share my high regard for this book, I also recommend other memoirs such as Peter Drucker’s Adventures of a Bystander, Andrew Grove’s Swimming Across, Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors, and John Whitehead’s A Life in Leadership.

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