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Still surprised: A life in leadership

With nearly 30 books and 85 years behind him, Warren Bennis is among the preeminent figures in the field of leadership studies. When the International Leadership Association (ILA) announced its 2010 webinar series entitled Leadership Perspectives, Bennis's August 25th presentation was a can't miss (More information about the book and a recording of the presentation are available here). Through an interview moderated by Jean Lipman-Blumen, Bennis discussed his latest book, Still Surprised - A Memoir of a Life in Leadership, and further explored his personal leadership journey through anecdotes and reflections of his life. If you were unable to listen or didn't know about the ILA's series, we wanted to recap Bennis's major points:

1. Social animal

One of the more poignant and heartfelt insights that Bennis had to offer was the importance of people in his life. He considered his personal relationships with friends and colleagues to be the thread that unifies his many experiences, and proclaimed himself a social animal. Bennis spoke of how he best learns through conversation with others, shared his original idea for his book's title (My Self through Others), and spoke openly of the importance of people and meaningful conversation in his life.

2. Engaged Observer

Bennis spoke at length about his desire to be a part of the action of his time. He expressed a genuine interest in learning and exploring, and wanted to be a participant in our countries history and struggle. He labeled himself an engaged observer, reflecting on his service as an officer in World War II to his research on institutions and groups. He wanted to be a part of solutions, and spoke passionately about his optimism for being a part of positive and meaningful change in the world.

3. Strategic Vision

When asked about the much-used concept of vision as a guiding force behind organizations, Bennis stated bluntly that static visions are "stupid". He emphasized the importance of regularly assessing the vision that guides a company, a movement, a person in the context of the events taking place throughout the world. The environment, market, economy, politics, etc. are always changing, and being flexible in terms of what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it is a more likely way of ensuring success.

(More: Read Warren Bennis respond to this week's panel question:Top leaders vs. middle managers)

4. Vision Subtext

Bennis also spoke fervently about the importance of identifying the subtext or undercurrent of your stated vision. Using one of his examples, a salesperson at a retail-clothing store isn't simply selling suits, she's selling self esteem. In short, there is always an understated vision that is far more compelling than what lies on the surface, and leaders must work to identify it and bring it out. Leaders who spend time understanding and articulating why they do what they do will ultimately be more successful.

5. Crucibles

For Bennis, crucibles are challenges that test our character. Some challenges may be chosen while others are thrust upon us. Regardless, the adversity we face in life provides us with opportunity to find something within ourselves that we may not have known we had. Through adversity we discover ways to move forward and grow, and interestingly, Bennis stressed that growth doesn't have to be done alone. Cycling back to the beginning, Bennis suggests that relationships help us through our crucibles, and by working alongside other people we learn from and advance through life's pitfalls.

ILA's presentation of Warren Bennis provided a revealing look into the life and work of revered scholar. However, perhaps more importantly it provided a platform for one man to share his life's story in conjunction with hopeful insights for leaders everywhere. Bennis's upbeat and hopeful tenants are of great value, and as the study of leadership advances it will be interesting to revisit the value of his beliefs. Let us know what you think about the points highlighted here, Bennis's work, and what his insights will mean to leadership in the future. As always, we enjoy your comments and feedback, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Have idea for what we should write about next? Be in touch at info@menoconsulting.com or visit us at Meno Consulting.  

By Joe Frontiera  |  August 30, 2010; 9:57 AM ET  | Category:  Books , Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Of the material covered in the article, I definitely felt the vision subtext section was the most interesting part. Being in the sales industry, I can easily relate to the what is being talked about in the article. Being a salesman isn't just random sales - you ask questions, learn about them, and find the best fit for them. I also agree that there is far more under the surface in our everyday jobs. Along with the vision subtext I find the social animal part very intriguing.I can relate because I feel the same way. My friends and family are the most important things in the world to me. Being able to help my friends and family is probably why I enjoy my job so much, because it's very rewarding to hear someone tell you how helpful you are or how good at your job you are. Meeting and helping people is something I genuinely enjoy, so there is definitely a strong connection between this article and myself.

Posted by: M28R | September 7, 2010 2:43 AM

As I was reading through this article I was definitely able to agree with and relate to Warren Bennis' statements. I liked the highlighted topic, 'social animal,' because I feel the people in my life have helped make the the leader I am today. I have learned through many experiences and conversations with the people I have come across in my twenty years. I agree with his statement about the environment, market, etc. is constantly changing and we need to be flexible with our ideas, mission statements, and values. I feel our generation has adapted to this idea better than past generations. I know my grandparents have a harder time dealing with change and refuse to change their beliefs. Bennis' comment about how crucibles challenge us and allow us to find something within ourselves that we didn't know we had. Part of what makes a leader 'good,' are the experiences and challenges they have gone through. A leader will remain static if not challenged and pushed to succeed through those challenges.

Posted by: cshoff | September 6, 2010 11:07 PM

Warren Bennis seems that he was a driven and dedicated leader. I agree with his statement about the retail clothing store clerk and when he stated, "A salesperson isn't simply selling suits, she's selling self-esteem". That is so true and goes along with passion. A good leader or salesperson has to have a display of true passion for their product or vision they are trying to portray.

Posted by: blynch1 | September 5, 2010 12:45 PM

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