Leadership development: The Legacy of Warren Bennis

August 6, 2014 by Wally Bock

Warren Bennis died on July 31, 2014 at the age of 89. If what you do has anything to do with leadership development, you owe him a debt of gratitude. Kevin Cashman went so far as to call him, “the farther of leadership development.”

That may be overstating things just a bit, but there’s no doubt that the way we think of leadership development today owes a lot to Warren Bennis and his ideas. Three stand out for me. They are the idea that leaders are always made, the role of “crucibles” in leadership development, and the idea that leadership development is a lifelong activity.

Leaders are made

Warren Bennis was one of the first to challenge the idea that leaders have some special genetic gifts that set them apart from the rest of us. Here’s how he put it in Managing People Is Like Herding Cats.

“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. And the way we become leaders is by learning about leadership through life and job experiences, not with university degrees.”

“Crucibles” are critical for leadership development

In 2002, Bennis wrote Geeks and Geezers with Robert J. Thomas. There’s a lot of value in that book, but the most important thing for me is the description of the role that “crucibles” play in leadership development. Here’s how the authors put it.

“We believe that we have identified the process that allows an individual to undergo testing and to emerge, not just stronger, but equipped with the tools he or she needs both the lead and to learn. It is a model that explains how individuals make meaning our of often difficult events – we call them crucibles – and how that process of ‘meaning-making’ both galvanizes individuals and gives them their distinctive voice.”

Leadership development is lifelong personal development

Warren Bennis had hundreds of insights. For me, this is the most profound. It’s from On Becoming a Leader,

“The process of becoming a leader is much the same as the process of becoming an integrated human being.”

RIP Warren Bennis 1925 – 2014

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

Posted in Leadership Development

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