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Sunday, October 03, 2010

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'. Through an interview moderated by Jean Lipman-Blumen (available here), Bennis discussed his latest book, Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership (J-B Warren Bennis Series)http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=positileader-21&l=btl&camp=213689&creative=392969&o=1&a=0470432381, and further explored his personal leadership journey through anecdotes and reflections of his life. 

Here are his key thoughts: 

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 organisations, Bennis stated bluntly that static visions are "stupid". He emphasised 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.

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 sales-person 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. 


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