Warren Bennis on the New Leadership

The great leadership thinker Warren Bennis died this week, aged 89. Thinkers50 co-founder Des Dearlove interviewed Bennis a number of times. In this interview Bennis shared his ideas about what he labeled the “new leadership”.

Do you see yourself as a romantic?

If a romantic is someone who believes in possibilities and who is optimistic then that is probably an accurate description. I think that every person has to make a genuine contribution in life, and the institution of work is one of the main vehicles to achieving this. I’m more and more convinced that individual leaders can create a human community that will, in the long run, lead to the best organizations.

Do great groups require great leaders?

Greatness starts with superb people. Great groups don’t exist without great leaders, but they give the lie to the persistent notion that successful institutions are the lengthened shadow of a great woman or man. It’s not clear that life was ever so simple that individuals, acting alone, solved most significant problems. None of us is as smart as all of us.

So, the John Wayne type of hero is of the past?

Yes, the Lone Ranger is dead. Instead of the individual problem solver we have a new model for creative achievement. People like Steve Jobs or Walt Disney headed groups and found their own greatness in them. The new leader is a pragmatic dreamer, a person with an original but attainable vision. Ironically, the leader is able to realize his or her dream only if the others are free to do exceptional work. Typically, the leader is the one who recruits the others, by making the vision so palpable and seductive that they see it, too, and eagerly sign up.

Inevitably, the leader has to invent a leadership style that suits the group. The standard models, especially command and control, simply don’t work. The heads of groups have to act decisively, but never arbitrarily. They have to make decisions without limiting the perceived autonomy of the other participants. Devising and maintaining an atmosphere in which others can put a dent in the universe is the leader’s creative act.

But isn’t this somewhat unrealistic?

True. Most organizations are dull, and working life is mundane. There is no getting away from that. So, these groups could be an inspiration. A great group is more than a collection of first‑rate minds. It’s a miracle. I have unwarranted optimism. By looking at the possibilities we can all improve.

What will it take for future leaders to be effective?

The post‑bureaucratic organization requires a new kind of alliance between leaders and the led. Today’s organizations are evolving into federations, networks, clusters, cross‑functional teams, temporary systems, ad hoc task forces, lattices, modules, matrices – almost anything but pyramids with their obsolete top‑down leadership. The new leader will encourage healthy dissent and values those followers courageous enough to say no.

This does not mark the end of leadership — rather the need for a new, far more subtle and indirect form of influence for leaders to be effective. The new reality is that intellectual capital (brain power, know‑how, and human imagination) has supplanted capital as the critical success factor; and leaders will have to learn an entirely new set of skills that are not understood, not taught in our business schools, and, for all of those reasons, rarely practiced. Four competencies will determine the success of new leadership.

What’s first?

The new leader understands and practices the power of appreciation. They are connoisseurs of talent, more curators than creators. The leader is rarely the best or the brightest in the new organizations. The new leader has a smell for talent, an imaginative Rolodex, is unafraid of hiring people better than they are. In my research into great groups I found that in most cases the leader was rarely the cleverest or the sharpest. Peter Schneider, president of Disney’s colossally successful Feature Animation studio, leads a group of 1,200 animators. He can’t draw to save his life. Bob Taylor, former head of the Palo Alto Research Center, where the first commercial PC was invented, wasn’t a computer scientist. Max DePree put it best when he said that good leaders “abandon their ego to the talents of others.”

Then, second, the new leader keeps reminding people of what’s important. Organizations drift into entropy and the bureaucratization of imagination when they forget what’s important. Simple to say, but that one sentence is one of the few pieces of advice I suggest to leaders: Remind your people of what’s important. A powerful enough vision can transform what would otherwise be routine and drudgery into collectively focused energy. Witness the Manhattan Project. The U.S. Army had recruited talented engineers from all over the United States for special duty on the project. They were assigned to work on the primitive computers of the period (1943‑45), doing energy calculations and other tedious jobs.

But the Army, obsessed with security, refused to tell them anything specific about the project. They didn’t know that they were building a weapon that could end the war or even what their calculations meant. They were simply expected to do the work, which they did slowly and not very well. Richard Feynman, who supervised the technicians, prevailed on his superiors to tell the recruits what they were doing and why. Permission was granted to lift the veil of secrecy, and Robert Oppenheimer gave them a special lecture on the nature of the project and their own contribution.

“Complete transformation,” Feynman recalled. “They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night. They didn’t need supervising in the night; they didn’t need anything. They understood everything; they invented several of the programs we used.” Feynman calculated that the work was done “nearly ten times as fast” after it had meaning.

Charles Handy has it right in his book The Hungry Spirit. We are all hungry spirits craving purpose and meaning at work, to contribute something beyond ourselves, and leaders must never forget to remind people of what’s important.

What else does a new leader strive for?

The new leader generates and sustains trust. We’re all aware that the terms of the new social contract of work have changed. No one can depend on life‑long loyalty or commitment to any organization. Since 1985, 25 percent of the American workforce has been laid off at least once. At a time when the new social contract makes the ties between organizations and their knowledge workers tenuous, trust becomes the emotional glue that can bond people to an organization.

Trust is a small word with powerful connotations and is a hugely complex factor. The ingredients are a combination of competencies, constancy, caring, fairness, candor and authenticity — most of all, the latter. And that is achieved by the new leaders when they can balance successfully the tripod of forces working on and in most of us is: ambition, competence, and integrity.

And, lastly?

The new leader and the led are intimate allies. The power of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List lies in the transformation of Schindler from a sleazy, down-at-the-heels, small-time con man who moves to Poland in order to harness cheap Jewish labor to make munitions which he can then sell to the Germans at low cost. His transformation comes over a period of time in which Schindler interacts with his Jewish workers, most of all the accountant, Levin, but also frequent and achingly painful moments where he confronts the evil of the war, of the holocaust. In the penultimate scene, when the war is over and the Nazis have evacuated the factory, but before the American troops arrive, the prisoners give him a ring, made for him, from the precious metals used by the workers. As he tries to put the ring on, he begins crying, “Why, why are you doing this? With this metal, we could have saved three, maybe four, maybe five more Jews.” And he drives off in tears.

It is hard to be objective about this scene; but, though this was a unique, singular event, it portrays what new leadership is all about: that great leaders are made by great groups and by organizations that create the social architecture of respect and dignity. These new leaders will not have the loudest voice, but the most attentive ear. Instead of pyramids, these post‑bureaucratic organizations will be structures built of energy and ideas, led by people who find their joy in the task at hand, while embracing each other – and not worrying about leaving monuments behind.

If you go into a company what’s the most important question you ask?

On a scale from 1 to 10, 10 meaning 100 percent and 1 meaning close to zero, how much of your talents are being deployed in your job? And why?

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