Warren G. Bennis: An interview by Bob Morris

Warren Bennis

Warren G. Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. He also is the chairman of the board of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. He has written 28 books, including On Becoming A Leader, Organizing Genius with Patricia Ward Biederman, Why Leaders Can’t Lead, The 21st Century Organization with Michael Mische, and Geeks and Geezers with Robert J. Thomas (recently re-issued as Leading for a Lifetime). Then another book, Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, co-authored with Noel Tichy, followed by Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor,  co-authored with Daniel Goleman and James O’Toole with assistance provided by Patricia Ward Biederman.

Note: Since this interview was conducted a few years ago, Bennis has published two additional books: Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership and The Essential Bennis with Patricia Ward Biederman.

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Morris: One of the recurrent themes in all of your books and articles is the importance of developing effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of an organization. How can these leaders learn to transmute chaos? How do they not only learn to accept change and ambiguity, but to thrive on it?

Bennis: That is the key challenge facing management today; change is the only constant. Some of the strongest resistance to necessary change is the result of what Jim O’Toole has so aptly characterized as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here are some suggestions:

1. Manage the dream: Create a compelling vision, one that takes people to a new place, and then translate that vision into a reality.

2. Embrace error: Create an atmosphere in which prudent risk taking is strongly encouraged. One of the worst mistakes is to do nothing. Like Karl Wallenda in his prime, those who take risks walk the high wire with no fear of falling. As former UCLA basketball legend, John Wooden, put it, “Failure is not the crime. Low aim is.”

3. Encourage reflective backtalk: Leaders know the importance of having someone in their lives who will unfailingly and fearlessly tell them the truth.

4. Encourage dissent: Leaders should have associates who have contrary views, who are devil’s advocates, “variance sensors” who can tell them the difference between what is expected and what is really happening, between what they want to hear and what they need to hear. There are too many naked emperors running around today.

5. Possess the “Nobel Factor”: Possess and constantly demonstrate optimism, faith, and hope. They create choices. I am reminded of an ancient Chinese proverb: “That the birds of worry and care fly above your head, this you cannot change; but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.”

6. Understand the “Pygmalion Effect”: Leaders should always expect the very best of those around them. They know that people can change and grow. I frequently recall when, as a child, I first learned about The Little Engine That Could. It climbed the hill because it believed it could. Expect the best from your people and they will usually deliver but your expectations must be realistic. (One of my occasional disappointments is expecting too much from my people. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “I dwell in possibilities…a fairer house than prose.” By and large, though, it’s paid off.

7. Understand the “Gretzky Factor”: Cultivate an instinct, a “touch, call it what you will, that enables you to know both where the “puck” is now and where it will be soon.

8. See the long view: By all means “plant the corn, milk the cows, and feed the horses” but always keep the eventual “harvest” in mind. At lengthy meetings at Camp David with President Sadat of Egypt, Prime Minister Begin of Israel explained why they were able to reach several agreements after more than 2,000 years of bloody wars. “We did what all wise men do. We began at the end.”

9. Understand stakeholder symmetry: Find the appropriate balance of competing claims by various groups of stakeholders. All claims deserve consideration but some claims are more important than others. Think of all the competing claims Abraham Lincoln faced when he assembled his cabinet as President on the eve of the Civil War. He took all of the competing claims into full account and then decided what he believed to be in the nation’s best interests.

10. Create strategic alliances and partnerships: Now and in years to come, shrewd leaders will create allegiances with other organizations whose fates are correlated with their own. This is exactly what Henry Chesbrough has in mind when recommending what he calls an “open business model.” Recognize and respect mutual self-interests, then build creative collaborations to serve them.


11. No leader can create sustainable, significant change without a reservoir of good will. Without that, you always tend to compromise with failure.


12. Final rule: Keep reminding people of what’s important and that their fates are correlated.

Morris: In Organizing Genius which you co-authored with Patricia Ward Biederman, the two of you focus on several high-performance teams (you call them “Great Groups”) such as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” the animators at the Disney studio, and those involved with the Manhattan Project. What do all of these teams share in common?

Bennis: These and other great groups are comprised of superb people. They have more than enormous talent and intelligence. They have original minds. They see things differently. They can spot the gaps in what is known. Great groups give the lie to the remarkably persistent but incorrect notion that successful organizations are the lengthened shadow of a great woman or man. However, each great group has a strong leader. In fact, great groups and great leaders create each other. And great leaders love talent and know where to find it. They surround themselves with talented people who can work effectively together. That’s important to remember: it’s not just a collection of great individuals but a group of people who enjoy playing in the sandbox, thoroughly enjoying collaborative problem solving.

Members of these groups always believe that they are doing something vital, even holy. They are filled with believers, not doubters, and the metaphors they use to describe their work are commonly those of war and religion. Every great group is an island…but an island with a bridge to the mainland. Almost without exception, members of great groups see themselves as winning underdogs, as a feisty David hurling fresh ideas at a big, backward-looking Goliath. They always have an “enemy.” For the scientists of the Manhattan Project, the enemy was the Axis powers. And if great teams don’t have an “enemy,” they create one for themselves because, as former Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta pointed out, “you can’t have a war without one.”

Finally, people in great groups have blinders on. Their work is all they see. Their collective genius is close to how W.H. Auden defined individual genius: “that skewed distortion of reality which informed their genius.” They value failures as learning opportunities. They are optimistic, not realistic, as they proceed from one challenge and crisis to the next. Great things are achieved by talented people who are absolutely convinced that they not only can but will achieve them. In great groups, the right people always have the right job. The failure to find the right niche for people – or to let them find their own perfect niches – is a major reason that so many workplaces are mediocre, even toxic, in spite of the presence of talent. Leaders of great groups give them whatever they need and free them from everything else. Think of successful creative collaborations are dreams with deadlines. Great groups deliver great results. And for everyone involved in a great group, great work is its own reward.

Morris: In Geeks and Geezers, co-authored with Robert Thomas, and later re-issued as Leading for a Lifetime, you and he share what was learned from interviews of dozens of leaders, ranging in age (when interviewed) from 21 to 93. Any surprises?

Bennis: As Faulkner once said, “No surprises for the author, no surprises for the reader.”  Bob and I had lot of them but we did not expect to discover any universal principles. But to our surprise and delight, that’s what happened. Despite significant differences between and among them in terms of age, childhood circumstances, formal education, and current activities, we discovered that all of these leaders evidence four basic qualities that are central to their ability to lead: adaptive capacity, the ability to engage others through shared meaning, a distinctive voice, and unshakeable integrity. We are now convinced that these four qualities mark all exemplary leaders, whatever their age, gender, ethnicity, or race.

One of the qualities that all the leaders have is a voracious appetite to learn whatever they do not as yet know and understand, coupled with an openness to new experiences. We came to think of this love of learning, of embracing the new, as a working definition of adaptive capacity. Such people constantly seek new information and new ways of thinking. By the way, we borrowed a great phrase from Saul Bellow to describe such an individual: he or she is a “first-class noticer.”

Morris: What can an organization do to feed an appetite for learning, to actually achieve the utopian vision of becoming a “learning organization”?

Bennis: For one thing, they need to recognize several basic facts. First, people vary enormously in how they learn. Some learn through their eyes – by reading but also by responding to all kinds of visual information. Others learn mostly through their ears or touch or other senses.

Second, organizations should try to find out if their learning programs actually work. A recent Conference Board study found, for example, that while nearly 90% of Fortune 500 companies routinely rotate leaders through functional, geographic, and other kinds of assignments, less than 10% actively monitor whether candidates are learning what they were sent to learn.

Third, organizations have to come to grips with the fact that tests of adaptive capability aren’t always pleasant. Learning can be a powerful emotional event, and organizations have to be cognizant of that. They must understand that those who complete high-quality executive education programs are going to see the organization with fresh eyes after they return. Those who re-enter the workplace filled with new enthusiasm and new ideas often find a chilly response on the part of their supervisors. Rejecting every proposal the returnee makes, without respectful consideration, is bad for the organization as well as for the returnee

Morris: Much of your attention in the book is devoted to discussion of what you and Thomas characterize as a “crucible.”

Bennis: Quite true. We found that every leader in our study, young or old, had undergone at least one intense, transformational experience. That transformational experience was at the very heart of becoming a leader. The American Heritage Dictionary defines crucible as “a place, time, or situation characterized by the confluence of powerful intellectual, social, economic, or political forces; a severe test of patience or belief; a vessel for melting material at high temperatures.” A crucible was the vessel in which medieval alchemists attempted to turn base metals into gold. That the alchemists inevitably failed in their audacious attempts doesn’t denigrate the power of the crucible as a metaphor for the circumstances that cause an individual to be utterly transformed.

Morris: And each of those interviewed had already experienced at least one crucible in her or his life?

Bennis: Yes, and when pressed about what happened in the crucible, each of those interviewed explained that she or he acquired new insights, new skills, new qualities of mind or character that make it possible to function on a new, higher level – “to jump to a higher plateau.”  We include all of those experiences in the book.

Think of a crucible as an occasion for real magic, the creation of something more valuable than an alchemist could possibly imagine. In it, the individual is transformed, changed, created anew. He or she grows in ways that change his or her definition of self. The crucible is a dividing line, a turning point, and those who have gone through it feel they are very different from the way they were before. Believing that they have been transformed or have transformed themselves, those who survive the crucible (and many don’t) are more confident, more willing to take future risks. That new self-confidence is grounded in the belief that he or she has done something hard and done it well.

Morris: Another important concept examined in your book is neotony.

Bennis: Indeed it is. We discovered that every one of the geezers who continues to play a leadership role has one quality of overriding importance: neotony. The dictionary definition is that neotony, a zoological term, involves “the retention of youthful qualities throughout old age.” It is more than merely retaining a youthful appearance, although that is often part of it. Neotony is the retention of all those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy.” As one who was born in 1925, I am especially appreciative of these qualities in others of my generation and I hope that I still possess them myself!

Neotony is a metaphor for the quality of life – the gift – that keeps the fortunate of whatever age focused on all the marvelous undiscovered things to come. Frank Gehry designs buildings that make other architects half his age (he’s 78) gasp with envy. Neotony is what makes him lace up his skates and whirl around the ice rink, while visionary buildings come to life and dance in his head.

Walt Disney, of all people, did a good job of describing his own netony. “People who have worked with me say I am ‘innocence in action,’” he wrote. “They say I have the innocence and unselfconsciousness of a child. Maybe I have. I still look at the world with uncontaminated wonder.”

The capacity for “uncontaminated wonder,” ultimately, is what distinguishes the successful from the ordinary, the happily engaged players of whatever era from the chronically disappointed and malcontent. Therein lies a lesson for geeks, geezers, and the sea of people who fall in between.

Morris: In Judgment, your most recent book co-authored with Noel Tichy, you assert that “the single most important thing that leaders do is make good judgment calls.”

Bennis: We are convinced that that is true. Why? Because, in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, and conflicting demands, often under great time pressure, leaders must make decisions and take effective actions to assure the survival and success of their organizations. This is how leaders add value to their organizations. They lead them to success by exercising good judgment, by making smart calls when especially difficult and complicated decisions simply must be made, and then ensuring that they are well executed.

Morris: Highly intelligent people with a superb formal education and sharp analytical skills still make bad decisions. Why?

Bennis: No question, those skills can be very important but making good judgment calls also requires character. Leading with character gives the wise leader clear-cut advantages. They are easier to trust and follow; they honor commitments and promises; their words and behavior match; they are always engaged in and by the world; they are open to “reflective backtalk”: they can speak with conviction because they believe in what they are saying…and everyone else knows that. They are comfortable in their own skin. They feel at ease in the spotlight and they enjoy it there. They tend to be more receptive to opportunity and risk. Bill George correctly characterizes them as “authentic leaders.” Judgment without character is expediency…or worse.

Morris: Please share your thoughts about knowledge creation and the role that leaders have during such initiatives.

Bennis: Noel and I focus on four types: self-knowledge, social network knowledge, organizational knowledge, and stakeholder knowledge.  All four are important when making a judgment call. We’re convinced that effective leaders make a full commitment to be a learner, to keep increasing and nourishing their knowledge and wisdom. They have two imperatives when it comes to knowledge creation. First and foremost, they must continuously strive to make themselves smarter and better at making judgments by the kind of transformational journey of self-improvement that CEOs such as Jeff Immelt and A.G. Lafley and others profiled in our book have taken. In addition, leaders must earn the trust of their teams, their organizations, and their stakeholders before attempting to engage their support. Without character, there is no credibility; and without credibility, there is no trust. This duality, making yourself better while teaching and developing others’ judgment capabilities, is the key to leadership that is both productive and principled.



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