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Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business at the University of Southern California. His newest book is 'Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership.'

Neither Hamlet Nor Bush

Sorry, I think the question itself is, well, searching for polite language, extremely misleading.

There is a huge different between "an about face" and a change of direction or reconsideration of a decision already made. When I was 19, during my last month of Officers Candidate School in November 1944 before going to Germany as a platoon leader, the word "de-brief" puzzled me. What it meant was simple: After a battle, whether a success or failure, the platoon, or even the entire company of four platoons, would evaluate what went right or wrong with our execution. What was counter-intuitive to me at the time was that "debriefing" was especially important after victory, as our officers, who were returning veterans, insisted.

Only later did the reasoning make sense: After you take a hill, you're the most vulnerable to attack; vulnerable because you want to relax, take out your canteen to quench your thirst, talk to your buddies, even lay back for a quick nap. Instead, what you should be doing is digging in to prepare for a counter-attack. The enemy knows that.

What President Obama is doing now, which I thought was weird at 19, is debriefing, clicking the re-set key. Now he has a golden opportunity to catch a breath, to review our experiences over the past decade in Iraq, in Afghanistan and the entire roiling Mid-East. Not to do that would be a dangerous mistake because, as the saying goes, we might be doomed to repeat the past. How often is it said that generals are always fighting the last war? Right now, a deep review of the past six or seven years is essential.

I've been brought up to respond to a question with a question: Why do the media (and your question is a splendidly sad example) continually use terms such as "flip-flopping" or "an about-face," which discredits genuine reflection and reconsideration of the past? Without that reflection we would be unable to freshly imagine future challenges and could easily become blind to the fatal mistakes of the past.

Isn't there a crucial distinction between a Hamlet, with his incessant inability to act, and an honest-to-God reviewing of past experiences? The Greeks called Hamlet's condition aboulia, a will-lessness, an inability to act. I don't think that our president has a case of aboulia. He is neither a Hamlet or a Bush, but a reflective leader. We should be, and I think will be, grateful for that.

By Warren Bennis

 |  September 24, 2009; 6:15 AM ET
Category:  Wartime Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Not Just Afghanistan | Next: Stabbed in the Back


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amapola11 - There are none so blind as those who will not see; none so deaf as those who will not hear; none so ignorant as those who will not listen and none so foolish as those who think they can change someone who will not see, hear or listen and it appears that someone may be you.
As for the rest of us, let us not waste another breath on the amapola's of the world. Let's focus on informed solutions, informed from reflecting more than reacting. Thank you Warren for nudging us back on track.

Posted by: mgoulston | September 26, 2009 4:12 PM
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Amapola11: You are today's winner in the taking up the most space saying nothing sweepstakes. If you were forced to give your name you might put a little time into thinking about what you have to say. "Using a lot of words that sound good but in essence say nothing at all..." You can't even find the words to sound remotely competent. Homer Simpson makes more sense than you.

Posted by: curtb | September 25, 2009 4:10 PM
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Amapola11 needs to search the Internet and learn who Prof. Bennis really is. To most of us with a business background and/or graduate degrees in business Dr. Warren Bennis is highly regarded and his opinions well-respected. Another suggestion for A...11: work on improving your syntax and grammar to give at least a modicum of credibility to your attempts at lucidity. It IS important to debate issues, and sincere attempts at civility are an apt requisite for respected discourse, as Dr. Bennis demonstrates so well.

Posted by: janna2 | September 25, 2009 11:16 AM
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The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7, 1941. FDR and the JCS, hamstrung as they were b the Republicans, already had determined that Hitler's Germany was the greater long-term threat, and planned accordingly. It was June 6, 1944 when the United States finally invaded Europe.

Unlike our military and civilian leadership in World War II, the previous administration of Republicans; the so-called stronger party on defense, flailed around like drowning rabbits; employed a shoot first, aim later, if at all, policy; and put our soldiers lives at risk with no plan, no aims, and no strategy

Our current President was handed two ill-conceived, ill-coordinated fait accomplis, and has no choice but to stop and do the evaluation that the previous administration should have done before ever committing any military resources at all!

Posted by: risejugger | September 25, 2009 3:11 AM
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What startles me most about amapola11's comments is their complete lack of functionality in English. I suspect amapola11 is a native English speaker, since people with these same attitudes tend to be the first to scream "Learn English" at immigrants. But my word, if you're going to try to critique someone or something, could you please say it in a way that the rest of us could understand???? A really good English grammar class could do you a world of good.

Posted by: kitcarlson | September 25, 2009 12:09 AM
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Sorry, Warren, you made a booboo.

"After you take a hill, you're the most vulnerable to attack; vulnerable because you want to relax, take out your canteen to quench your thirst, talk to your buddies, even lay back for a quick nap."

It should be "you want to LIE back..."

Posted by: rachelle1 | September 24, 2009 11:23 PM
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What Obama's critics consistently fail to admit is the fact Bush consistently failed for nearly 8 years to get Afghanistan right, yet you expect Obama to fix it in 8 months. Classic double-standard ethos from the neoclowns. Currently Obama inherited two wars, $600 billion on Iraq and $150 billion on AFghanistan--per year, had we spent $750 billion a year on Afghanistan, perhaps we'd be further along, sadly we're just starting.

Obama will clean up this mess, for the right reason--that is where the real enemy is, not Iraq's oil fields.

Posted by: cisconwa | September 24, 2009 10:55 PM
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It is too early to judge Barack Obama's performance as president.

I believe he will be a great president, glowingly successful, and go down in history as a shining example of America at its best. But as of today, he has accomplished nothing that has proven my belief.

People who say he is a horrible president should keep that in mind. It is still too early to judge.

But let's not fool ourselves. People who say he is a horrible president have no desire to attempt an honest critique of his performance. Not now and not in the future. (If he were to walk on water, they would say Barack Obama can't swim.) They are the same people who thought he was a horrible senator, a horrible candidate, a lowly social activist; they think he is a horrible man, a bad American. They are the same old tiresome ideologues of the Right, many of whom think George W. Bush was actually a good president (all evidence to the contrary).

They are the reason Fox News flourishes.

They have no need for evidence. They have no time for thinking. Because anyone who gives it any thought realizes that is too early to judge Barack Obama's performance, one way or the other.

Posted by: eddymac99 | September 24, 2009 10:06 PM
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Hey moderator/comrade, don't tas my opinion

I thought I had overheard Il Duce' Obama repeatedly proclaim from the Heavens that Afghanistan was the caldera of "man made disasters," rather than the Iraq which was a "war of choice." I recollect hearing this jewel of wisdom from the Swiffer-In-Chief and the smartest Senator on foreign affairs, now the most gaffe prone VP probably in history utter this repeatedly. I thought they had this issue down pat. Where is bo and his '300 experts' of foreign affairs? The empty void of leadership can't forever be substituted for the gall and arrogance of this markedly inferior ideology and intellect.

Posted by: falconflight | September 24, 2009 8:40 PM
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I thought I had overheard Il Duce' Obama repeatedly proclaim from the Heavens that Afghanistan was the caldera of "man made disasters," rather than Iraq which was a "war of choice."

I recollect hearing this jewel of wisdom from the Swiffer-In-Chief and the smartest Senator on foreign affairs, now the most gaffe prone VP probably in history utter this repeatedly for how many years?? How many years have we been subjected to this empty political smear?

I thought they had this issue down pat. Where is bo and his '300 experts' of foreign affairs?

The empty void of leadership can't forever be substituted for the gall and arrogance of this markedly inferior ideology and intellect.

Posted by: falconflight | September 24, 2009 7:50 PM
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Obama has nothing to debrief from. He hasn't been in battle yet. He needs to deal with the issues instead of continuting to say "he didn't make this problem". He has no experience and it's obvious. He's too arrogant and stubborn to listen to the American people when they're concerned and continues to push his own agendas with no regard to the public who "hired" him. I'm very concerned for our country.

Posted by: ProudAmerican1 | September 24, 2009 6:19 PM
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"call Bill Ayers on your super-secure Blackberry and get HIS input."

Oh please! Do your country a favor and DON'T continue to think about politics.

A serious question - you can't possibly think that President Obama is a confidant of Bill Ayers? Do you? Really?

If so, then you have no intention of thinking about, or discussing ANY statement rationally or reasonably. Go back to your cartoon news network and let them make you feel better about the America that "used to be"

The rest of us will be busy turning the damn car around and putting the country on the right track for the 21st century.

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | September 24, 2009 5:43 PM
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amapola11 - there are 2 rather obvious things that jump out from your rant:
1) you've never served in the military. If you don't think that military leaders access their positions and review their strategy and tactics, you're a fool. Do you think that Don't you think that General McChrystal is constantly looking at his plans and either adjusting or abandoning them if they don't work?
2) you spend way too much time watching Faux News. Read a real newspaper, buy and read a real magazine, spend some time thinking (yes, you're required to do some real thinking in a democracy!) about what's being said on both sides.
One other thing that's obvious from your rant is that you have absolutely no idea of who Barack Obama is, or what he stands for. Try actually listening to the man for a change and not just accepting the opinions of other people!

Posted by: philasportsphan | September 24, 2009 4:25 PM
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Obama's stated goal in Afghanistan is to prevent it from becoming a sanctuary for the Taliban and yet he refuses to bomb Taliban sanctuaries because he doesn't want to kill civilians.

We would not have defeated Japan or German in WWII with that strategy. Obama is not a wartime president.

Posted by: alstl | September 24, 2009 4:01 PM
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Had Obama been a "great leader," with all the time he had to observe the situation in Afghanistan, he would have "de-escalated" this unwinnable war and focused on withdrawing our troops as expeditiously as possible.

Given that he failed to do that, he shoud at least have ordered General McChrystal to the oval office and told him:

"General, 8 months ago you said that an additional force of 20 thousand soldiers would do the job. Now you're publicly saying we need another 10 to 45 thousand! Have you been jerking me around? Are you trying to feather your cap at my expense, and at the expense of the country?"

(The implication being that McChrystal is either a fool --for such a gross miscalculation--, or a scoundrel.)

Of course it's always possible that Obama and McChrystal colluded in their policy of military escalation for Afghanistan: maybe they calculatedc that an initial military re-inforcement of, say, 50,000 troups would incur too much resistance, initially, from the voters: the "surge" needed to be fed to the public in increments (otherwise they might not swallow it).

In any case, it's hard to interpret these changes in policy as anything other than cynical manipulaton, either of the president, or by the president (and of the American people.)

Posted by: elena4 | September 24, 2009 3:11 PM
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Thank you, Professor Bennis,
President Obama deserves recognition for his attempts to reverse the inept, greed driven bush/cheney administration.
The republican agenda consistently favors corporate interests and the rich, the obscenity of the oil/energy profits as cheney held secret energy meetings.
The bush/cheney administration of lies and spin, corporate crony contracts of Halliburton, KBR, Blackwater et al, preemptive war for oil, torture, and abuse of the executive branch. The worst administration in US history, voters for bush/cheney unwilling to admit mistake, are just like them.

Posted by: jama452 | September 24, 2009 3:08 PM
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Correct, the word to use is not flip-flop or about-face, but "redeploy."

To cut losses and redirect forces where they provide more security is a good idea. To keep spend money and lives to no tangible advantage is dumb. Leadership does not mean expanding wars or filling cemeteries.

There is no "victory" to be had in Afghanistan. There is no constituency there in favor of being an infidel's colony. There is no basis for a modern economy. It is best fit for fiefdoms governed by local warlords or imams, whether "taliban," or not.

Afghans did not hit us on 9/11. The perpetrators came from Saudi Arabia or Egypt, and they trained and conspired in the US and Europe. Osama and Zawahiri are in Pakistan, and we don't seem very likely to find them. If dead, it was probably by drone attack, which is the only cost-effective way to interdict terror leaders. "Training camps" of the sort were Al Qaeda once operated were abandoned after our intial cruise missile attacks. In the future, the training is likely to be in non-descript places in civilian centers. To tie 100k US personnel down in Afghanistan will not prevent future terror attacks. It merely bleed resources from other objectives.

So let's "redeploy," getting out sooner, rather than later.

Posted by: jkoch2 | September 24, 2009 3:05 PM
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Sorry that Obama not charging ahead without thinking or evaluating the situations is somehow a failed campaign promise. I know you are use to dumb macho bravado from your leaders but where has that gotten us?

Posted by: ged0386 | September 24, 2009 2:52 PM
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America has become weak-kneed. We aspire to continue being the leader of the free world but can't stomach less than 1000 deaths in Afghanistan (843 so far per Antiwar.com) that is since 2001. Iraq has cost us 3474 combat deaths so far. Don't tell me I'm insensitive because I paid my dues in Vietnam. We lost 58,193 there. 416,800 died in WWII, in 4 years. Let's keep things in focus, even one death is too many, but the point is freedom is not free! All those monuments and statues you see in Washington DC and in countless cemeteries throughout our nation are filled with the sacrifice of many, a sacrifice through which our nation was forged, ā€œ The land of the free, and the home of the brave.ā€ The world if full of two-bit thugs like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez. If we stop being the leader of the free world all those men would have died in vain. Iā€™m proud I served, and I know our military is too.

Posted by: cmuina7 | September 24, 2009 2:40 PM
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Great article. Effective leadership is quickly becoming a lost art. In this age of ipods, microwave ovens, and the internet, the human species has a collective waning attention span. We want it all, and we want it yesterday; but we want to buy it on time. Knowledge is plentiful; wisdom is a gift form God.

Posted by: spreeda | September 24, 2009 2:37 PM
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Now, after reading this are we supposed to say "WOW! What a great leader Obama is!"

All during the 08 campaign he belly-ached about not doing enough in Afghanistan. Now, he is twiddling his thumbs while his top general pleads for reinforcements. Great leadership??? Hardly.

Posted by: Revcain777 | September 24, 2009 2:36 PM
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Professor Bennis raises an interesting question:

"Why do the media (and your question is a splendidly sad example) continually use terms such as "flip-flopping" or "an about-face," which discredits genuine reflection and reconsideration of the past?"

Once upon a time, newspapers were out in the open about their partisan commitments, their joyful hucksterism, their willingness to fill in the facts in a story if they didn't have facts which fit.

Then a terrible thing happened to the news profession, namely, professionalism.

Universities started journalism schools and preached on the merits of ethics and objectivity. The media continue to be hucksters, but now they try to make it more subtle.

The advantage of "flip-flopping" is the emotional baggage it carries; the desired effect is to stimulate partisans of both sides to take umbrage - against the politician or the paper; it doesn't matter. The aroused reader is an engaged reader.

This is equivalent to the editorial cartoon - a line drawing, unnecessary shadings dropped, a quick take with a strong point-of-view.

To heck with responsible citizenship. Hucksterism rules. In a nutshell, it sells.

Posted by: j2hess | September 24, 2009 2:28 PM
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How does that old canard go? "Those that CAN -Do. Those that CAN"T-Teach.

I guess an addition to the canard is "Those that CAN"T TEACH - go into Politics".

Posted by: jmccain | September 24, 2009 2:01 PM
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Amapola11 -- Hater! God loves you anyway.

Posted by: gprudich | September 24, 2009 12:49 PM
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Why, yes!!! Question and re-think! Constantly! Question! Question your parents! Push the "reset" button! Question your country! Question your faith! Get halfway down the road to pawtucket with a basket full of goodies and pull off and say "Why do I really want to help those people?" Go off and spend three months on the road pushing for health care reforms that you aren't going to implement for four years WHILE SOLDIERS ARE DYING OVERSEAS! Go spend three days yukking it up with the loonies at Turtle Bay while SOLDIERS ARE DYING OVERSEAS!
Question your strategy; question Bush's straategy; push the reset button; call Bill Ayers on your super-secure Blackberry and get HIS input. Be willing to go anywhere, anytime to talk to any dictator about anything, while your top commander sits with his hat in his hand waiting for you to come home from your I, ME, MY tour. These people the Washington Post dredges up to "feel good about feeling good" make me sick.

Posted by: chatard | September 24, 2009 12:34 PM
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You attack Warrren Bennis, he has served in the armed forces. Have you? And could you at least give Obama a year in office before passing judgement?

Posted by: nihonnikki | September 24, 2009 12:31 PM
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Amapola11 shows a really deep- seated hate for President Obama without giving any rational or explanatory reasons for such. These bizarre rantings are signs of a disturbing trend in America. Go back to your Beck program & stay away from message boards.

Posted by: dougharty | September 24, 2009 12:25 PM
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The only question about the ravings of amapola is why she did not mention that the proffessor is a socialist, a communist, a fascist, and a member of ACORN?

Heck, why not. None of the post meant anything, so why not throw in the usual catch phrases?

Posted by: John1263 | September 24, 2009 11:25 AM
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Poor, naive Warren. He thinks the media are about reporting and documenting the news! Reasoned discourse doesn't play well in the 30-second spot or the 4-word headline. And reporting about it would require an understanding of the concept.

Posted by: 33rdStreet | September 24, 2009 11:20 AM
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Better to take a little time and get it right than to charge in without a clue. This is exactly the Obama style. He gets the data, hears from all parties, then makes a decision. The committment of lives and so much wealth in a mission of such dire importance is not something to be taken lightly. If one needs a primer on what happens when a President is irresponsible and not deliberative in matters of foreign policy and war one need not reach too far into the past.

Posted by: John1263 | September 24, 2009 11:20 AM
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Your writing reveals you to be only a step above functional illiteracy, and you also appear to lack skills in reading comprehension.

Is English your first language?

Posted by: kjohnson3 | September 24, 2009 11:20 AM
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There is no doubt that this presdent is facing the most difficult agenda in recent history and has tackled it head-on amid the second-guessing and the criticism, unlike his predecessor who "conjured up"
his own "issues" (i.e. Weapons of mass destruction), through lies and deception, then tanked the nation's economy by spending $10 billion a month for his last six years in office on a needless war.

The absence of leadership in the Bush administration was no more evident than in the lack of any post-invasion plans in Iraq. It is one thing to start a phony war, but to not have a plan to bring it to an end is simply unconscionable.
But then, the entire Bush-led eight years was unconscionable.

Posted by: theintrepidone | September 24, 2009 10:26 AM
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Good question:
"Why do the media (and your question is a splendidly sad example) continually use terms such as "flip-flopping" or "an about-face," which discredits genuine reflection and reconsideration of the past?"

OK. President Bush had his "surge" after he had said it was good in Iraq.

But the press loves to tie leaders down to a position then attack it. If they move, it throws the attack off. So even his enemies hated the surge.

"We can not win" was their last comment.

Narrow minds, and that includes most of us I am sad to say - like consistent leaders.

We do not want to change.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | September 24, 2009 9:58 AM
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Good article Mr. Bennis,
Most people don't understand that the real enemy is watching us, waiting, measuring each step we take.
for instance, What were Al-Qaeda leaders doing on 9/11?
They had already discussed the reactions Bush's government would take.
they were waiting for a reaction.

9/11 was a bait, Bush bit it as Bin Laden expected. In fact, Bush did so good that he invaded IRAQ INSTEAD OF FOCUSING ON AFGHANISTAN. That's a Flip-flopper.

Bush was a bad soldier, he once said about Saddan "he wanted to kill my daddy..."
it might work as motivation, but as a goal it is ridiculous.
Bush's reaction gave Al Qaeda time to reorganize itself and media exposition they needed so much.
Bush did exactly what Bin Laden was expecting

Posted by: marcelosba | September 24, 2009 9:39 AM
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amapola11, idiots like you are destroying the country, not Obama. Warren Bennis knows exactly what he's talking about when it comes to good leadership...there is absoultely nothing wrong with changing a failing course of action, even if he was the one who put on on that course of action to begin with. Admitting you made a mistake and want to make good is one of the highest marks of good leadership. If you don't believe me, read a book about George Washington...most generals would have been fired for making as many tactical errors as he did, but his greatest quality was his flexibilty and willingness to listen to his great subordinates (i.e. Nathanael Greene, arguably the best general of the revolution)

Posted by: sicksidvt | September 24, 2009 9:19 AM
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amapola11 .. I see you have invented a new Posting Name..

First the Professor brought us excellent ideas to ponder. Especially the insainity of the Necon governance which has the USA in the same position as England after WW2...BROKE and ANGRY and a quest for good Leadership.

We are fortunate to have a person with street smarts like Presidnet Obama. His efforts are what Leadership is about.

The sets the goals and then proceeds to manage and govern then through DELIGATION and FEEDBACK.

Something the REpublicans are ignoring and the reason they can only attract the ignorant and bigots to their part and against their best interests.

WE have your number.
AND you are never selecting it again..


Posted by: Issa1 | September 24, 2009 9:00 AM
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At last, someone speaks who makes sense. Someone who is worried less about making his reputation than about understanding a problem and trying to find a real, workable solution. Someone who sees the wisdom in being prudent.

Thank you, Mr. Buffett.

Posted by: schuberm | September 24, 2009 8:49 AM
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Amapola11: do you actually know anything about Warren Bennis? I didn't think so.

But you obviously don't feel the need to know anything about him in order to rant like this. Which, of course, helps us evaluate the rest of what you have to say.

Posted by: bcamarda2 | September 24, 2009 8:38 AM
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This man ( Nipwit) might be a Professor of business and probably not a very good one. Praising Obama? Telling us that Obama is a good President?Give me a break! We all know better and he has prove to us that he is the "Worst president in THE HISTORY of the USA" and has not only no idea what he is doing but really hates the USA and the American people. Otherwise he would be doing what he is doing.
Mr.Warren Bennis might have been a soldier at one point in his life, for not too long and adquired didn't really get the complete knowledge of debriefing and didn't apply it much. He certainly wasn't a leader. Bet you he never advanced or gain any rank he started and finished as a plain soldier.
How can he compare being a president with being a soldier at war. Come on, "We the people" in which Mr Obama certainly does not include himself as being part of are not the enemy, on the contrary Obama is the American people worst enemy. He wants to destroy it and us with it.
This man's article is so full of BS as Obamas speeches using a lot of words that sound good but in essence say nothing at all...
He should certainly stop writing articles especially when he does not know what he is talking about. He kind of make it look like does, but he doesn't have the faintest. ;)

Posted by: amapola11 | September 24, 2009 8:35 AM
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