One of the great things about having some time away from work over the Christmas break is of course the opportunity to catch up on a year’s worth of reading! And so it was with some surprise that I discovered in the October 2014 edition of the Harvard Business Review that the contemporary leadership thinker Warren Bennis had passed away earlier in the year. Much of Warren’s writing formed the basis of my initial interest in leaders and teams many years ago.
In an earlier post from 2014 I mentioned some of the climber memorials I had stumbled across in a park on a trip to New Zealand, and it led me to asking “how would you want to be remembered?”. I couldn’t help but think that the below piece from BHR editor Adi Ignatious is a pretty decent epitaph.
Warren Bennis, who died this summer at the age of 89, certainly ranks among the world’s most influential thinkers on the topic of leadership. He explored it in more than two dozen books and in countless articles—many of them for HBR. It’s not a stretch to say that he brought the study of leadership from the fringes of academia to the mainstream, always arguing that leaders need to be more democratic than autocratic. But his greatest and most enduring gift may have been his generosity of spirit. As David Wan, the CEO of Harvard Business Publishing (and a friend of Warren’s), puts it: “Everyone viewed Warren as a mentor.”
The list of those who would agree is indeed long and impressive, ranging from Starbucks’s CEO, Howard Schultz, to the political commentator David Gergen, to the prominent psychiatrist Mark Goulston. Schultz, in his book Pour Your Heart into It, describes how he came to depend on Warren’s advice, writing that he would call him up “late at night or early in the morning, whenever I reached a turning point and was at a loss for what to do.”
Bennis spent his final 35 years teaching at the University of Southern California, and he founded the school’s Leadership Institute. He kept active nearly until the end, giddily learning the art of blogging for the likes of HBR, Bloomberg Businessweek, and others. In 2010 he published a final book, a memoir titled Still Surprised, that nicely sums up his life and ideas.
I interviewed Warren when the book came out. He talked about one unfinished project: “It may come that my next book will be called…Grace. I think that may be just the name for a book which is going to deal with issues of generosity, respect, redemption, and sacrifice—all of which sound vaguely spiritual, but all of which I think are going to be required for leadership.” As my colleague Julia Kirby wrote in a touching remembrance on our website, “Grace never made it to bookstore shelves. But the people who had the privilege of knowing and working with Warren got the content of that book in his presence.”
Adi Ignatius, Editor in Chief, Harvard Business Review