Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book Review: On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis

I wrote this for a class in public administration back in 1997. You can tell it’s for a class because it’s longer than the reviews I’d normally write for this blog. I have the sense from reading it that the assignment must have involve answering particular questions about the book. I got an A-. The hyperlinks are added, but I haven’t changed it otherwise from what I wrote the first time.

Bennis, Warren. On Becoming a Leader. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Bennis’ premise is that leadership comes out of the state of being of the leader. Leadership starts with a leader’s capacity for self-invention, to shape himself with learning and reflection as opposed to being shaped by circumstances. In Bennis’ words, “No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders.”

Bennis’ process of self-invention begins with self-knowledge. He proposes four lessons to gaining self-knowledge. First, “you are your own best teacher”; learning is essential. Second is to accept responsibility for your own education. Third, “you can learn anything you want to learn.” Finally, reflection is necessary to develop understanding and a leader must question his experience to learn. Leaders innovate and learn from experience without fear of mistakes. According to Bennis’ definition, a leader is someone in the front, doing things others have not done.

A leader must add knowledge of the world to self-knowledge. Bennis says that a leader should learn about the world through participation rather than reaction. One learns by trying to change something as well as experiencing it as it is. The conscious learner seeks broad experience, learns from others and from mistakes.

A leader must trust his instincts. Bennis uses Emerson’s term “blessed impulse.” Blessed impulse is a tool for making decisions in a world to complex to be completely understood.

Leaders must deploy themselves. By this Bennis means a leader must practice self-expression. Deploying oneself is offset against being deployed by others or the voices of others on one’s head.

Leaders must “get people on their side.” Bennis prescribes constancy, congruity of words and action, reliability and integrity.

Bennis also speaks more generally about the characteristics and roles of leaders. These are similar to what might be found in other books on leadership.

Bennis calls the organization the primary form in American society. He challenges leaders to shape their organizations, and shape society, to make them work in a rapidly changing world. He encourages executives to empower junior leaders in their organizations to teach them leadership through experience.

Throughout, Bennis uses the experience of twelve leaders gleaned from interviews. Bennis includes a brief biography of each leader at the end.

At first, it seems that Bennis says that one becomes a leader by being a leader. This is what he says, but he does not leave the reader hanging. Bennis’ perspective is what is unique about the book. Leadership is the expression of the character, qualities, values and personality of a leader. His is not a direct call for us to become leaders, but for us to become ourselves. Leadership will follow.

This may be a difficult lesson. Buyers of books on leadership are probably more interested in learning the skills of leadership and management to help them in their current situations. Bennis says express yourself. If you are doing what you think you ought to do, if others deploy you, you will not be a leader. Self-expression may take you to something different.

The first step to leadership is self-knowledge. A useful tool is self-evaluation, what Bennis calls “tests and measures.” Bennis offers a set of four tests—really four statements. One could apply the tests with pencil and paper, making lists in response to each statement. Of all the tools and suggestions in the book, this set of tests is the most clear and immediately applicable. A reader wanting to apply Bennis’ lessons would do well to start here.

Little else can be used immediately. Changes in point of view and lifestyle take time. One might argue that only a few Bennis’ suggested activities are specific to developing leadership. To me, much of it sounds fun and interesting. That is the point Bennis is trying to make: leadership comes out of broad experience, education, perspective, desire, mastery of one’s discipline and synthesis of ideas.

My own experience validates this. I am as proud of my single published poem as I am of my accomplishments as an engineer or public servant. The skills and abilities exercised by writing are different from those exercised by engineering. I am persuaded that, though seemingly unrelated, one improves the other in me.

Bennis’ somewhat artificial distinction between managers and leaders is a shortcoming. He makes a manager sound like something one would not want to be. He list skills and characteristics developed from the “education” of a leader and the “training” of a manager. All seemingly undesirable things are on the manager side. On might argue tat several management skills, like deduction and common sense, would be useful to a leader.

Most of the interviews are businessmen, but some come from public service agencies and professions. In may seem that businessmen are more susceptible to “surrendering to the context”—the bottom line, the corporate culture, the style of a boss to be pleased—but public service leaders must face their own context. A public servant may readily accept his organization’s view of the way things should be or done, what is important and who to involve without ever considering his own vision, ability and desire.

It may be more important for public section leadership to use self-expression. While a business leader may have the satisfaction of bringing a product to market, making a profit, even gaining notoriety, a public leader may never see his vision achieved. A public leaders’ satisfaction may have to come from living the life he wants to live.

A particular item addressed by Bennis that may be of use to one in public service is getting people on your side. A public leader may have little to rely on besides his integrity and “voice”—an ability to change the climate of his organization and shape it to work more effectively. As important as it is, Bennis can offer little on the subject except constancy, congruity, reliability and integrity. He says to be someone others might follow. He offers no lessons on persuasion, though if persuasion can be taught, it may be of little benefit to those who lake those characteristics.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership Tested by Time by James L. Garlow
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Developing the Leader Within by John C. Maxwell
The Difference Maker by John C. Maxwell
Winning with People by John C. Maxwell

This review of On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis appears courtesy of Keenan’s Book Reviews, a book review blog that features nonfiction.

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