The CEO Whisperer

The story Warren Bennis tells his students as the new semester begins at the University of Southern California came from a New Yorker article published in January 2005.

The story Warren Bennis tells his students as the new semester begins at the University of Southern California came from a New Yorker article published in January 2005. Although the “Mission Accomplished” banner had already been unfurled and President Bush had declared victory, the war in Iraq was just heating up and American soldiers were coming to grips with the precarious situation into which they had been deployed. Journalist Daniel Baum described a scene early in the war.

He had been watching CNN from his office in Baghdad as a small unit of American soldiers marched into Najaf, a city which was home to Iraq’s holiest mosque. As the squad entered the city on foot, hundreds of angry Iraqis began to pour out of buildings and surround the soldiers. Screaming and shaking fists, the mob grew ever larger and more threatening as the soldiers, confused and terrified, stood their ground. Watching on television, Baum was certain he was about to witness “the Iraq war’s version of My Lai.” A shot would ring out, the soldiers would open fire with automatic weapons and a bloodbath would ensue.

But then, a young American officer wearing dark sunglasses moved into the picture. He held his rifle high above his head and pointed the muzzle downward toward the ground. “Against the backdrop of the seething crowd, it was a striking gesture — almost biblical,” wrote Baum. He ordered his squad to do the same. Then he barked, “Take a knee!” and the soldiers sank to the ground in a nonthreatening posture. Startled by the action, the crowd grew quieter and then started to move away. The officer ordered his soldiers to withdraw and the standoff ended without a shot being fired.

Intrigued by this signal act of leadership under such extreme circumstances, Baum spent two months tracking down the young officer. Eventually, he found Lt. Col. Chris Hughes back home in Iowa on leave. In a phone conversation, Baum asked him what he had been thinking about and why he acted as he had. Baum wondered: How had Hughes been schooled to handle the potential disaster with such calm and decisive command? Hughes responded with mild surprise at the question. He did not see his actions as particularly special. Hughes had learned before entering Najaf about the Iraqi culture and the holiness of the mosque and realized immediately that the Iraqis saw the soldiers’ presence as a grievous sign of disrespect. By turning their weapons downward and kneeling, the soldiers would offer “a gesture of respect.” When pressed, Hughes admitted that he had not been taught how to handle such a situation; it was just an intuitive decision on his part. The article went on to describe the difficulty the army has in getting its officers “to do precisely what [Hughes] did: innovate and think creatively.”

The story offered multiple lessons and yielded yet another epiphany for the renowned 84-year-old scholar regarding his signature subject — leadership. After spending nearly six decades studying, teaching and writing about leadership, Bennis retains a passion for discovery, fresh insights and new learning.

For his class, Bennis finishes his story by playing Aretha Franklin’s hit song “Respect” and, while the students sway to the contagious rhythm, he points out the increasing importance of this attribute in today’s leaders.

Wisdom’s Realm

In his soft-spoken, thoughtful manner, with his shock of white hair, deeply tanned face and dapper, understated style of dress, Bennis brings his students into the inner realm of his accumulated wisdom. Just 42 lucky juniors and seniors make it into the class “The Art and Adventure of Leadership” while 300 are turned away. Bennis is legendary and his class is perennially among the most popular on campus. Bennis suggests that the Iraq story illustrates a defining moment in the emergence of young military officers.

Hughes’s quick and decisive action flew in the face of what an outside observer might have expected from an ill-prepared army entering into a questionably tenable conflict. Unable to adequately train its officers for this unique landscape, seething population and unanticipated style of engagement, the army had deployed them with little more than crossed fingers. But something unexpected and welcome happened. Hughes came to exemplify a generation of young officers who would do battle in Iraq and demonstrate out of pure necessity an intuitive ability to adapt and thrive in a menacing conflict. His response was rich with learning opportunities.

Bennis considers his current crop of students part of what he calls “The Crucible Generation” and he believes that it “longs to grant and be granted respect.” In the face of daunting economic and social problems, these young people will rise, like Hughes, to the leadership challenge in surprising ways, Bennis predicts.

“To respect someone is to pay attention, to view somebody, to really see that person,” Bennis explains. “When you think about leadership in the current global environment, you need respect, not just tolerance. One must also get to know the territory. I call it contextual intelligence. I would guess that Chris Hughes was a brave and competent officer, but he was probably like a lot of other ordinary leaders who do extraordinary things. He wasn’t being overly modest. He had just gotten to know the territory and it informed his actions.”

Underlying the impact of Bennis’s insights, including his latest — he is already contemplating a book on respect — is his thirst for knowledge and his insatiable curiosity. James O’Toole, a professor of business ethics at the University of Denver’s business school and Bennis’s colleague for more than 30 years, said of him, “I believe this ability to change how others think begins with his own manifest willingness to challenge himself, to try out new ideas, and, indeed, to recreate himself.” At a time in life when most people have long since retired, Bennis remains an energetic force and an inspirational voice in a discipline that is as relevant today as when he began his career after World War II. 

Leaders are Made

Over the decades, he has articulated countless insights about leadership that have become core tenets of the discipline. For example: Great leaders are not born, they are made; leaders are people who do the right thing, managers are people who do things right; the era of the Great Man, that one John Wayne type leader around whom the troops rally, has ended and has been replaced by leadership teams; and, successful leaders need to support transparency and a culture of candor within their organizations or they will fail.

In his seminal 1989 book, “On Becoming a Leader,” Bennis startled a complacent generation of executives by illuminating the slippery slope to failed leadership. “We are at least halfway through the looking glass, on our way to utter chaos,” he wrote. “When the very model of a modern manager becomes CEO, he does not become a leader, he becomes a boss, and it is the bosses who have gotten America into its current fix.”

For Bill George, who was moving from Honeywell into the CEO’s chair at Medtronic, the medical technology giant based in Minneapolis, Bennis’s book was cathartic. “It had a big impact on me,” said George, now a professor of management practices at Harvard Business School. “He spoke of leadership as character and the importance of finding empathy and meaning through work. It was one of the reasons I made the switch to Medtronic. But it really spoke to me about how you become a leader by becoming deeply engaged with the people in the business, whether they are customers, recipients of our products or employees, as opposed to focusing on the numbers and chasing short-term results.”

Bennis’s words ring as true today as 20 years ago but Bennis is unflagging in his efforts to offer new solutions. In a small nod to his advancing years, he has cut back his consulting and eliminated air travel. Beyond that, his softened voice is the only indicator that age has touched this celebrated scholar and international superstar. Bennis has written more than 30 books, including his newly released “The Essential Bennis” (Jossey- Bass, 2009), and thousands of articles and touched the careers of several generations of executives.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has relied on Bennis as a trusted adviser for 20 years. “He has wisdom and understanding of both business and the human condition,” Schultz said. “He sees the world and is able to extract very conflicting concepts and synthesize those in a way that is both understandable and applicable. He leaves his ego at the door and is always there to help.”

Schultz, for example, turned to Bennis for advice when returning to the leadership position at Starbucks in January 2008. “I spoke to Warren about how the first 90 days should be framed,” Schultz said. “It was such an important period and Warren advised me about the discipline required and focus necessary to align the organization around the things we needed to accomplish. He also stressed the importance of the leader and the confidence needed to inspire people, to have them believe. Part of his strength is his authenticity.”

Bennis has been called elegant, witty and graceful by his innumerable admirers. His generosity and the warm welcome he gives to all who seek his advice make it difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say about him.

He is as comfortable chatting with an undergraduate as with Barack Obama. Mostly, he keeps seeking answers to the questions he has asked for the past 60 years: What makes a leader effective? Why do so many of them fail? And what qualities will leaders need in the future? Though he is an academician by trade, his laboratory is the real world of organizations — corporate, governmental and academic — experiencing traumatic change. “Theory sheds no blood,” Bennis writes in his new book. “When you fail in the real world, the pain is palpable and often widespread.”

Bennis’s fascination with leadership began when he was a child growing up in an unsettled Jewish home in northern New Jersey. He was impressed by the ability of one of his older twin brothers to effortlessly organize the neighborhood children into activities while the other “couldn’t influence his way into a stickball game.” Why, he wondered, was one twin a natural leader while the other was not? Midway through World War II, Bennis enlisted and completed officers and infantry training at Fort. Benning, Ga. In 1944, Bennis, a 19-year-old newly commissioned lieutenant, was sent overseas and became the youngest infantry officer to serve in the European theater.

He served as a platoon commander and later a company commander during the chaotic end of the war against Germany. As a teenager leading battle-weary soldiers who had survived the Battle of the Bulge, Bennis relied heavily on his commanding officer, a Captain Bessinger, whom he credits with keeping him alive. Among the skills he quickly acquired was the ability “to know when and how to duck.”

With bombs bursting and rifles blazing, Bennis learned how to differentiate between the sounds of particular kinds of shells. There were just seconds to identify an incoming mortar or rifle fire and to find cover. “It was about being able to anticipate what was going to happen,” Bennis recalls, suggesting that the skills he acquired are pertinent in today’s global business environment. In addition, the war gave rise to the practice of debriefing — taking the time after a battle to reflect on what happened and what lessons could be learned.

Intellectual Development

After the war, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights, Bennis went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where his formal introduction to academia and the study of organizations began. He made postgraduate stops at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University and Harvard and found himself in the company of a large cohort of seminal thinkers who developed the study of organizational dynamics and leadership. From Douglas McGregor, Antioch’s pioneering president whom Bennis credits for shaping his life, to famed psychologist Kurt Lewin, Bennis was exposed to many of the leading minds of an era of intellectual ferment. He was swept up by the postwar thinking about the United States as the burgeoning new economic powerhouse. At MIT, he earned a doctorate in economics while studying under Nobel laureates such as Paul Samuelson, Franco Modigliani and Robert Solow and was surrounded by a group of young scholars who would create the study of the human aspect of business.

Every stop in his journey brought energizing new thoughts, techniques and inspiration. He spent time in Bethel, Me., at Lewin’s famed National Training Laboratories where he encountered the T-groups and the investigation of group behavior, an experience that had a profound impact on his thinking about leadership. A four-year stint at the State University of New York at Buffalo in the late 1960’s as part of a new administrative team striving to remake the university left Bennis humbled by the failed experiment. Organizations will not change unless they want to change, he realized.

From 1971 until 1978, Bennis shed his theoretician’s robes to try his hand at actual leadership. His tenure as president of the University of Cincinnati provided another lesson in humility. Spending 14-hour days buried under a bureaucratic avalanche left him stressed, frustrated and disappointed. In “The Essential Bennis,” he writes, “Routine work drives out nonroutine work and smothers to death all creative planning, all fundamental changes in the university — or any institution, for that matter.”

A year after leaving Cincinnati, Bennis suffered a severe heart attack while attending a gathering of scholars at Windsor Castle in England. He spent three months recuperating in Middlesex Hospital, the same hospital, Bennis likes to tell people, where Rudyard Kipling was taken with a perforated duodenum. Kipling died a week after he was admitted, but fortunately, Bennis left the hospital weakened but alive. He recuperated for three months in England before returning tothe United States restored and healthy. He landed back in academia but this time as a university professor at the University of Southern California, where he has spent 30 contented and productive years.

From his academic perch, Bennis has advised presidents and chief executives through tumultuous times. He has seen play out many of the trends he predicted. Together, the flattened organization, the demise of the Great Leader and the powerful forces of globalization have produced what he calls “a leadership vacuum.” This vacuum “reveals that even the best business schools have not done their finest at teaching some core aspects of leadership,” he wrote in a Forbes magazine essay. He compares the next generation, the Crucible Generation, to his own “Greatest Generation,” and writes, “The truth may be that history, in its kindness, gave this new generation a grand crucible challenge, as it did my own. The young of today have been summoned to receive that same kindness through the collective failures of their elders.”

Advisor to CEOs

Although Bennis stopped formally consulting four years ago, he continues to advise CEOs on an informal basis and he remains in demand. “He’s still got it,” said O’Toole. “So many times I have seen people either individually or in groups struggling with an issue, trying to come to terms with a problem. Warren will come in, cut through the clutter, get right to the nub of the issue, define it and put a name on it. He gets to the big `aha.’ ”

Bennis’s genuine warmth and compassion make it difficult for him to say no when he is asked for advice. He hopes his teaching and writing help people understand their own lives better and perhaps “feel less lonely.” When asked by political pundit David Gergen, one of Bennis’s many leadership students, what he would like to have written as his epitaph, Bennis replied, “I want to be known as generous company.” He will get no argument about that.

“He just connects with people,” says Ira W. Krinsky, a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International. “Most people of his standing get caught up in their own importance. Around Warren, he makes you feel important. He’s just very comfortable with who he is.”

Bennis also has the enduring ability to train his focus on the future without being encumbered by his past. He welcomes new insight with the relish of a hungry man anticipating a fine meal. Indeed, his memoir, scheduled to be published in 2010, is called “Still Surprised.” Bennis says that the qualities of leadership that will be significant in the next 10 to 15 years will differ from those required in the past. “In my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve experienced a world with so many unknowns, so many issues, so many possibilities and so many options,” Bennis says.

In 2007, when Hillary Clinton was heavily favored as the Democratic presidential nominee, Bennis announced his preference for Barack Obama in a Wall Street Journal essay that he wrote with Noel Tichy. After a five-year study of leadership, Bennis and Tichy concluded that judgment trumps experience. “Our central finding is that judgment is the core, the nucleus of exemplary leadership,” they wrote. It was a powerful endorsement, which drew a call of appreciation from Obama.

Today, nearly a year into Obama’s presidency, Bennis has further thoughts on the challenges the current divisive environment present. When asked what he would tell Obama now, Bennis says, “I wouldn’t tell him anything. I’d ask him a question, `What is your top priority right now?’ I would suggest he has to show the steel that I know is in him. His natural tendency is to bring people together, but he’s going to have to lay down clear parameters about what is acceptable.”

Among Bennis’s strengths is his broad knowledge and command of metaphor. He draws from “King Lear” and Norman Lear. A consummate storyteller, Bennis calls up relevant anecdotes from a seemingly bottomless well. When thinking about Obama and current leadership pressures, he recalls a story about Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Roosevelt died in April 1945, the nation was devastated, Bennis recounts. When the funeral cortege made its way along Constitution Avenue in Washington, the route was lined with citizens mourning the president. As the hearse passed, one middle-aged man broke down sobbing and was so overcome with grief he almost fell to his knees. “After the hearse passed, he regained whatever dignity he thought he’d lost and pulled himself together,” Bennis says. “A guy next to him, a stranger, leans over and says, `You were so overcome. Did you know the president?’ And the man responded, ‘No, no. I never met him. But he knew me.’ ”

For Bennis, this is a profound lesson for prospective leaders. The ability to make people feel known and to soothe people’s fears, exemplified by Roosevelt’s fireside chats, is a powerful tool. He suggests that Obama has that capacity, as evidenced by his stirring address to the Muslim world in Cairo. “A Hamas leader in Syria said, `Finally, a Western leader spoke in a way that made me think he understood us,’ ” Bennis recounts. “People felt he knew them. This is extremely difficult in large organizations, but it is possible.”

For Bennis, the chaotic swirl of current events is a “global arrhythmia” and young leaders are on the verge of experiencing a “very exciting, scary, adventurous, unprecedented period of unknowns and possibilities.” He mentions a tag line that Hillary Clinton used while still campaigning against Obama in the primary, “Will he be ready on Day 1?”

“The truth is, there is no Day 1,” Bennis says. “Every Day 1 is a surprise, which is why adaptive capacity and openness are as much a part of the executive’s repertoire as doubt and uncertainty. The legitimacy of doubt, of really not knowing but wanting to discover as much as one can about what one needs to know, that is what great leaders must now embrace.”

Glenn Rifkin has written for The New York Times, Fast Company, Strategy + Business, and many other publications. He is co-author of “MBA in a Box: Practical Ideas from the Best Brains in Business,” and other books.