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Howard Gardner
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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Warren Bennis: Still surprising at 85

Among psychologists, and, for that matter, among the general public, there are contrasting views of why we are the way that we are. One group, I'll call them the 'essentialists', believe that each person is a certain way. Some essentialists attribute this identity chiefly to genetic factors, others focus more on parental or cultural contributions. But certainly by adulthood, the die has been cast and it is very difficult to change.

Others doubt that any of us is a certain way. Rather, according to these 'role-players' we adopt various roles, depending on circumstances and contexts, and such adoption of different guises can and often does continue through life, as often or not, with surprising effect.

I've known of Warren Bennis' name and work since I was a student in the 1960s, and am honored to have been able to call him a friend for 15 years. We bonded from the first and have remained in regular touch ever since. And in the manner of intimates, we've talked at length and frankly about many aspects of life. I've known of Warren's love of theater, his fascination with the appearances of persons and things, and his ability, like a great actor, to capture and hold the attention of so many larger-than-life individuals and of groups, large and small.

But until I read his wonderful memoir "Still Surprised" I did not realize that the two of us hold different views of how a life is formed and developed. Even though it is Warren who was psychoanalyzed and who has many essentialist friends, he clearly believes that we go through life assuming various roles, often not knowing what is required. Moreover, as we learn to go through the motions, we actually become those roles, at least until the next role challenge arises or is seized.

In his memoir, Warren talks about a multitude of roles; son, brother, World War II soldier (including a bronze star!), enchanted and enchanting undergraduate, intrepid graduate student, ambitious junior professor, wanderer near and far, college administrator and president, husband and father, cardiac patient, business consultant and guru, and esteemed university professor (the highest title on any campus) for the last two decades. In no case, was there a prior Warren who knew just what he wanted and could be counted on to exhibit certain features. Rather, Warren emerged as a result of the various roles, with each new one reconfiguring those that came before.

Very few people, and certainly not I, have had the variety of roles that Warren assumed. Yet, as one raised in a European tradition, a first born, attracted to biological and developmental psychology rather than social psychology, I suspect that I would have related my own life, and Warren's life, quite differently. I would have looked to the examples of my parents and grandparents, both nature and nurture, and to a character that was quite fully formed by the end of adolescence.

One of the reasons that Warren and I get along well is because we are not absolutists. In fact, as our late friend Roger Brown once said of himself "I am a kind of an 'on the one hand, on the other hand' kind of person. And I suspect that Warren would see some truth in my essentialist view, just as I gladly acknowledge the power of roles and the testimony of many who know me, that I am quite different at 67 than I was at 17 or 37 or even 57.

Still, good friends often continue to debate 'fault line' issues. Warren writes of his life as if it was largely a matter of luck and roles. But most readers will think it is not an accident that Warren was chosen to lead other soldiers in battle when he was barely 20 years of age; that the president of Antioch chose Warren as his star student and took him along to high profile meetings and on key trips; that Warren's dissertation and first papers were widely acclaimed; that he was offered tenure at MIT at a tender age; that he has an unequaled set of friends and admirers; and that he headed the search committee that selected Steve Sample, one of the most successful University presidents in recent times, and has taught with Steve for over a decade. Warren has a marvelous ensemble of traits, and they did not simply arise from accidental circumstances.

As a wonderfully honest reporter, Warren does not hesitate to discuss his disappointments and his mistakes, personal as well as professional. Yet this book has an excitement, an energy, a joie de vivre that is inspiring. As an essentialist, I suspect that Warren was born with an ebullient temperament. And yet at the same time, I must acknowledge that Warren is at the happiest point in his life right now, because the roles that he assumed in the last twenty years-- master teacher, mentor, writer, pundit, and, yes, guru--are the ones into which he has grown. And they have made him what he is, just as surely as he excelled in them because of who he is.

When I turned 65 and looked to Warren, as I often do, for sage advice, he said to me "Assume that you have 15 years left." Happily, Warren has not followed that advice and at 85 remains astonishingly youthful in heart and spirit. He tells us he wants to be around to celebrate Barack Obama's second term. If I am around, I want to salute Warren Bennis--master, mentor, and friend--on that and on many subsequent occasions.

By Howard Gardner

 |  August 11, 2010; 10:03 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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