The Essential Bennis: A book review by Bob Morris

The Essential Bennis
Warren Bennis with Patricia Ward Biederman
Jossey-Bass (2009)

The pre-eminent leader of leadership studies

I have read and reviewed all of Warren Bennis’ books and read most of his articles. Therefore, I was especially eager to examine this volume in which Bennis collaborates with 20 guest contributors on creating what is best viewed as a retrospective examination of the themes, issues, crises, failures, and achievements that have guided and informed – in some respects defined – his life and career thus far. The material is carefully organized within six Parts, each of which has an organizing theme: My Life as a Leader, How Organizations Create or Thwart Leaders, On Becoming a Leader, Leadership as Performance, Cultivating the Leader in Others, and finally, Leadership and the Media. Bennis provided a brief but remarkably enlightening introduction to each Part

Presumably Patricia Ward Biederman (who co-authored Organizing Genius with Bennis and contributed “The Berkeley of the East” and “What Went Wrong”) also assisted with the editing of the abundance of the material. However, the dominant voice is Bennis’, as it should be, and he probably reveals more about himself (warts and all) than in any prior publication. I found all of the contributors’ articles well worth reading and especially appreciated these:

Scott Snook and Rakesh Khurana on “The End of the Great Man”
James O’Toole on “A Corporate Fear of Too Much Truth”

Note: O’Toole’s essay on “Speaking Truth to Power” in Transparency, co-authored with Bennis and Daniel Goleman, is a “must read” for all executives.

Frances Hesselbein on “Understanding the Basics”
Glenn Close on “Leadership as a Performing Art”
Bill George on “The Challenges of Leadership in the Modern World”
Jean Lipman-Blumen on “Followers Make Good Leaders”

Readers will also appreciate the Foreword provided by Charles Handy and the Introduction provided by Bennis. Although the narrative consists of 433 pages, most readers will probably review the Contents and then cherry-pick subjects that are most relevant to their own business needs and interests. However, there are several “gems” among the contents that I came upon literally by accident and would have otherwise missed. Either I did not recognize the author or assumed that the subject would be of little (if any) interest. I urge others not to make that mistake. There is not only “something for everyone in this volume,” there a great deal for everyone…and some of that requires a willingness to locate it and then an open mind receptive to what it offers.

In the Introduction, Bennis reflects on certain themes that have always fascinated him (e.g. “that bureaucracy was doomed”) and continue to fascinate him. In certain respects, his own contributions to this volume could be viewed (in aggregate) as memoirs but, in my opinion, they can – and should – also be viewed as a “map” of intellectual and emotional “territory,” much of which has yet to be explored. As part of the “Bennis Heritage,” therefore, I presume to suggest that the implicit challenges in this book are offered with a fervent hope that others will accept them with the courage, curiosity, determination, and humility that Bennis has demonstrated throughout his life and career. With all due respect to his achievements, those qualities are his “essentials.” Begin your own journey of self-discovery by allowing him to share his.


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