Leadership and Warren Bennis

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Feb 13, 2016

“Great things are accomplished by talented people who believe they can accomplish them.”
Warren Bennis

For years, Warren Bennis has been one of my favorite authors on leadership. And though I have not read all of his more than 30 books, his insights have profoundly influenced me. How surprised and sad I was to learn recently that he died on July 31, 2014, at 89 years of age.

You could call me a long distance admirer. I never met him or heard him speak. I only knew him though his writings. I always read with a pen in my hand and his books are among the most marked up books in my library. 

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I received a personal email message from him on August 19, 2008, regarding a “Think About It” column I wrote several weeks before in this paper titled “Warren Bennis on Leadership.” He must have read it online.

Here is what he wrote to me, “I sent a response to you on the (newspaper) blog but wanted to thank you personally. Your column was the most thoughtful and empathetic about my work that I’ve seen. Nothing sweeter to an author than acknowledgement by a colleague. God Bless and thank you, Warren Bennis.”

Those words still warm my heart for at least three reasons. First, it is always encouraging for an author to hear that one’s words are being read by others. It really is encouraging to know that what we are saying matters to someone else, even to Warren Bennis.

Secondly, I was amazed that an author of his stature still found it meaningful to hear appreciation from a reader. I suppose one never loses that gratitude no matter how many books one has written. I have learned that no matter what leadership influence someone may have or how famous they are, they are always grateful when I say thank you.

And finally, I was deeply impressed that he would take the time to say thank you to me. That note caused me to admire his leadership insights all the more because no matter how much influence we may have, saying “thank you” to those around us always matters. He demonstrated to me that his leadership influence was not just about his words but also about his life. 

Because Forbes magazine called Bennis “the dean of leadership guru” and William W. George, a professor at the Harvard Business School said of him “I look at Peter Drucker as the father of management and Warren Bennis as the father of leadership,” I thought you might like to read some of his most famous insights on leadership.

My favorite Bennis quote on leadership is, “Leadership is the capacity to transform vision into reality.” I have had that one on the corner of my desk for years.

Here are a few more: “The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it. Failing organizations are usually over-managed and under led. Leaders must encourage their organization to dance to forms of music yet to be heard. People who cannot invent and reinvent themselves must be content with borrowed postures, secondhand ideas, fitting in instead of standing out.”

On the subject of nature verses nurture, Bennis says, “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.

His two truisms on leadership are both timeless and accurate. Bennis’ First Law of Pseudodynamics, “Routine work drives out non-routine work and smothers to death all creative planning, all fundamental change in the university — or any institution.”

Bennis’ Second Law of Pseudodynamics, “Make whatever grand plans you will, you may be sure the unexpected or trivial will disturb and disrupt them.”  

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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