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Still teaching: Warren Bennis on leadership

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John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2011, Leadership Gurus International ranked him No. 11 on its list of the world’s top leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of nine books on leadership including “Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results” and “Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.” His website is

I don’t know Warren Bennis personally, but after reading his latest book, “Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership,” I feel I do. And this is only right, since I have quoted him often in my own work.

Bennis is a giant in the world of leadership development, and this book is a welcome addition to his canon. It begins with the title. “Still Surprised” is an apt description of a man who is truly a seeker, one looking not just for answers but for experiences that will lead to greater understanding.

Born in Brooklyn in 1925, Bennis joined a military training program in high school that led to his becoming. likely. the youngest second lieutenant in World War II. His first assignment was daunting, as a replacement platoon commander during the Battle of the Bulge. His first lesson was to defer to the experience of those he knew more than he did, namely his first sergeant and his captain. Later, he learned how to stand up for them when he ordered a tank commander to provide support for his men who were to take a Bavarian town in April 1945, just days before the war’s end. That action earned him the Bronze Star.

The book blends the story of his life with that of his career as an academic, provost, and university president. For the past three decades, he has been teaching and leading at the University of Southern California. What comes to mind for me are five key insights that all who are in charge can take away from this book:

Be curious. Academics ask questions in the search for knowledge. They must be willing to research, as well as be open to, new sources of information. Curiosity for leaders comes as a means of ascertaining the status quo as well as a means of questioning it. At times this will be liberating, but other times, it will cause discomfort because leaders must be change agents, a term Bennis coined decades ago.

Be collaborative. So much of what a leader accomplishes is not through command but through influence. Bennis brings this lesson to life by retelling the story of heading a committee to choose a new president at USC. As head of a committee of 19, Bennis deftly demonstrates how leaders listen patiently, cajole gently, challenge appropriately and even flatter in order to bring people into agreement.

Be a networker. Any memoir of a famous personage will contain details of acquaintances and friendships with other famous people, and so a cursory reading will seem like a collection of anecdotes. Not so with this work. Bennis is by nature a networker. Leaders need to network purposefully, both as a means of determining the current situation as well as the capabilities of the people in the organization.

Be self-aware. Bennis is candid about his failings as a husband as well as his shortcomings as an administrator. The university president at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who recruited Bennis, betrayed him. And his presidential tenure at the University of Cincinnati ended prematurely due to partisan politics. His candor is refreshing and reminds us that a leader who does not know himself will have trouble getting others to follow his lead.

The final chapter, “The Crucible of Age,” is a frank assessment of the aging process but also one that is full of hope “I see the world with the same wide-eyed wonder [of children] because everything is different than it was 25… 50… or 75 years ago. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.”

Good advice for every leader.