On Becoming A Leader – Warren Bennis


On Becoming a Leader


Usually I don’t expect much from this type of books. On this occasion, however, I was pleasantly surprised.

  • Have a purpose, passion, integrity, negative capability 
  • Shape yourself, rather than be shaped
  • Actively seek out new and uncomfortable experiences
  • View fear as a motivator that pushes you in the direction where growth lies
  • Be aware of the lenses you see the world through and change them if you don’t like what you see
  • Travel extensively, read a lot of books (How do I travel when I work all the time? Does a week on Palma even count as travelling?)



So let’s see if I cover the checklist:

What is my purpose? To become a strong person, to be well educated, able to understand the world and eventually to shape it for the better.

Do I actively seek out new and uncomfortable experiences? I would say no. A lot of the times it is sheer apathy that prevents me from getting new experiences. ” Can I really be bothered to do that? What is the point? ”

My greatest problem with fear is not what follows, it is the effect that fear has on my body and mind that scares me. It prevents me from being myself and think clearlyt. I am getting better at handling it, though… Meditation… Also, focusing on the emotions of the people around you until you forget about yourself and your fears seems to do the trick.

Am I mindful of how I perceive the world around me? Not really… I satisfy myself with the fist explanation that my brain / social conditioning provides. It is another area that needs improvement. Reframe, reframe, reframe…


1817, poet John Keats wrote in a letter to his brothers that the basis for real achievement was “negative capability … when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. ” There’s probably no better definition of a contemporary leader than that.  (True Detective, anyone?)

I think getting up in the morning is more exciting when you’re nervous. If you’re not nervous, you’re dead…. It’s time to change your life or your work the moment you stop having butterflies in your stomach.

The first basic ingredient of leadership is a guiding vision. The leader has a clear idea of what he or she wants to do—professionally and personally—and the strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failures.

The second basic ingredient of leadership is passion—the underlying passion for the promises of life, combined with a very particular passion for a vocation, a profession, a course of action. The leader loves what he or she does and loves doing it. Tolstoy said that hopes are the dreams of the waking man. Without hope, we cannot survive, much less progress. The leader who communicates passion gives hope and inspiration to other people.

The next basic ingredient of leadership is integrity. I think there are three essential parts of integrity: self-knowledge, candor, and maturity.“Know thyself,” was the inscription over the Oracle at Delphi. And it is still the most difficult task any of us faces. But until you truly know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word. Leaders never lie to themselves, especially about themselves, know their faults as well as their assets, and deal with them directly. You are your own raw material.

When you know what you consist of and what you want to make of it, then you can invent yourself. Candor is the key to self-knowledge. Candor is based in honesty of thought and action, a steadfast devotion to principle, and a fundamental soundness and wholeness.

As presidents, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter were all more driven than driving, and each seemed trapped in his own shadows. They were haunted men, shaped more by their early deprivations than by their later successes. They did not, then, invent themselves. They were made—and unmade—by their own histories.

When Henry Kissinger was asked what he had learned from the presidents he had worked with—a list that started with Kennedy, through whom he met Truman—Kissinger replied, “Presidents don’t do great things by dwelling on their limitations, but by focusing on their possibilities. ” They leave the past behind them and turn toward the future.


Former Lucky Stores CEO Don Ritchey said, on the need for being oneself, “I believe people spot phonies in very short order, whether that be on an individual basis or a company basis. As Emerson says, ‘What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say’.

…have often thought that the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensively active and alive. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, “This is the real me”.

…managers’ descriptions were “surprisingly congruous…. Learning is experienced as a personal transformation. A person does not gather learnings as possessions but rather becomes a new person…. To learn is not to have, it is to be. – some powerful stuff right there

In our discussion, I suggested that this kind of learning has to do with reflecting on experience. Kaplan said, “I would add a component to that, which is the appetite to have experience, because people can be experience averse and therefore not learn. Unless you have the appetite to absorb new and potentially unsettling things, you don’t learn…. Part of it is temperament. It’s a kind of fearlessness and optimism and confidence, and you’re not afraid of failure.

Clearly, to become a true leader, one must know the world as well as one knows one’s self. A variety of studies, as well as the lives of the leaders I talked with, demonstrates that certain kinds of experiences are especially significant for learning. These experiences include broad and continuing education, idiosyncratic families, extensive travel and/or exile, a rich private life, and key associations with mentors and groups.

Now a professor of constitutional law at American University, Jamie Raskin was an assistant attorney general in Boston when he warned against letting your ambition get in the way of your intellectual growth: “‘Ambition is the death of thought,’ as Wittgenstein said. A number of my friends are as ambitious as I am, but they suppress any thoughts that might be subversive or dangerous to their ambitions. Your intellectual life is really the ability to see how things can be different, and big institutions in society, whether public or private, often ask people to toe the line in any number of ways—personal, political, ideological. And clearly one can get ahead by doing that. I guess the only way to prevent ambition from killing your intellectual life is not to be afraid of losing, or to say something people might think is wrong, or crazy, something the institution isn’t ready to hear yet…. If you want a concrete tip, learn how to speed read. People say they don’t have time to read. My feeling is, ‘When in doubt, read it. ’ I can read a book in a couple of hours. ” – I am very much against speed reading good books. It just does not have the same impact on you.

The stranger in a strange land sees more and sees fresh. Being on the road not only requires the full deployment of one’s self, it redeploys one, tests one’s strengths and weaknesses, and exposes new strengths and weaknesses. Our two most sophisticated Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were inveterate travelers, and both spent much time in Europe. Those who travel farther from home learn even more.

Life has never been simple and is growing more complex all the time, yet we persist in attempting to reduce it to bumpersticker dimensions. The advocates of simplicity see reality as mechanical, static, segmented, and rational, when it is, in fact, organic, dynamic, whole, and ambiguous. They see relationships as linear, sequential and serial, discrete, singular and independent, when they are, in fact, parallel and simultaneous, connected, murky, multiple and interdependent. They are determinists, believers in cause-and-effect, when, in fact, probability is the rule and the inevitable hardly ever happens. They wear square hats, when they should try sombreros.

No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, to use yourself completely—all your skills, gifts, and energies—in order to make your vision manifest. You must withhold nothing. You must, in sum, become the person you started out to be, and to enjoy the process of becoming.

Whatever it is you want to do, you shouldn’t let fear get in your way. Fear, for most leaders, is less a crippler than a motivator. As Brooke Knapp said, “I started flying because I was afraid of it. If you give not 90 percent or 95 percent but 100 percent, you can make anything happen. The greatest opportunity for growth lies in overcoming things you’re afraid of. ” She went on to become one of America’s leading flyers.

The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse. ” Unless you are willing to take risks, you will suffer paralyzing inhibitions, and you will never do what you are capable of doing.Mistakes—missteps—are necessary for actualizing your vision, and necessary steps toward success.

Part of the trick is not creating situations where you’re inviting contests of egos. And oddly enough, the more willing you seem to be to let people participate, the less need they have to force participation. It’s the threat of being left out that exacerbates their ego problems and creates clashes.

Jacob Bronowski wrote, in The Ascent of Man, “We have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation…. The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well and, having done it well, he loves to do it better

Korn/Ferry International co-founder Richard Ferry belongs to what might be called the throw-them-into-the-water-andthey’ll-learn-to-swim school: “You can’t really create leaders. How do you teach people to make decisions, for example? All you can do is develop the talents people have. I’m a great believer in trial by fire, on-the-job experience. Put them out there in the plants, put them in the markets, send them to Japan and Europe. Train them on the job. ” Jim Burke and Horace Deets were succinct. Burke said, “The more experience and the more tests you survive, the more apt you are to be a good leader. ” Deets, speaking of his job as executive director of the American Association of Retired Persons, said, “It’s a tough job and, I would wager, can only be learned by experience. You can’t learn it by reading up on it, you’ve got to do it. The only real laboratory is the laboratory of leadership itself.

Everywhere you trip is where the treasure lies. ” Everywhere you trip is where the treasure lies. That’s learning from surprise, as well as adversity. Virtually every leader I talked with would agree

Ernest Hemingway said that the world breaks all of us, and we grow stronger in the broken places

This brings me to what I think of as the Wallenda Factor, a concept I described in detail in Leaders and so will recap only briefly here. Shortly after the great aerialist Karl Wallenda fell to his death in 1978 while doing his most dangerous walk, his wife, also an aerialist, said, “All Karl thought about for months before was falling. It was the first time he’d ever thought about that, and it seemed to me that he put all his energies into not falling rather than walking the tightrope. ” If we think more about failing at what we’re doing than about doing it, we will not succeed

Empathy isn’t simply the province of artists. Former Lucky Stores CEO Don Ritchey said, “I think one of the biggest turn-ons is for people to know that their peers and particularly their bosses not only know they’re there but know pretty intimately what they’re doing and are involved with them on almost a daily basis, that it’s a partnership, that you’re really trying to run this thing well together, that if something goes wrong our goal is to fix it…

I always took a little more time, told people more than they needed to know…. You have to be absolutely straight with people, not clever or cute, and you can’t think that you can manipulate them. That doesn’t mean you have to think they’re all stars or that you have to agree with everything they do, but the relationship, I think, ought to be for real.

What does it mean to go from an industrial age to an information age? Beyond the ways we have to change as leaders and managers within the context of our enterprise, the world itself is changing, becoming more idea-intensive, more information-intensive, so the people who’re going to surface, to rise to the top, are going to be people who are comfortable with and excited by ideas and information.

I think the first thing one has to do [in setting out to change a culture] is get people on one’s side and show them where you want to take the company. Trust is vital. People trust you when you don’t play games with them, when you put everything on the table and speak honestly to them. Even if you aren’t very articulate, your intellectual honesty comes through, and people recognize that and respond positively.

These leaders have dealt with and continue to deal with this mercurial world by anticipating, looking not just down the road, but around the corner; by seeing change as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle; and by accepting it, rather than resisting it. One of the hardest lessons any novice skier has to learn is to lean away from the hill and not into it. The natural inclination is to stay as close to the slope as possible, because it feels safer and more secure. But only when the skier leans out can he or she begin to move and gain control, rather than being controlled by the slope. The organizational novice does the same thing: leans close to the company’s slope, submerging his or her own identity in that of the corporation. The leader stands tall and leans out, taking charge of his or her own course, with a clear view of where the course is going—at least until the snow starts to fall. Resisting change is as futile as resisting weather, and change—relentless change—is our weather now. It is that constant and that unpredictable. Leaders live in it, and so do organizations. And there is much organizations can do to make the process easier.

Common Cause founder John Gardner once said that leaders are people who understand the prevailing culture, even though much of the culture is latent, existing only in people’s minds and dreams, or in their unconscious. But understanding is only the first step. The leaders of the future will be those who take the next step— to change the culture. To reprise Kurt Lewin, it is through changing something that one truly comes to understand.

Max De Pree, in Leadership Is an Art, wrote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.

What managers expect of their subordinates and the way they treat them largely determine their performance and career progress. A unique characteristic of superior managers is the ability to create high performance expectations that subordinates fulfill. • Less effective managers fail to develop similar expectations, and as a consequence, the productivity of their subordinates suffers.

Subordinates, more often than not, appear to do what they believe they are expected to do. Leaders expect the best of the people around them. Leaders know that the people around them change and grow. If you expect great things, your associates will give them to you. Jaime Escalante believed that students in a Los Angeles inner-city high school could learn calculus. And they did. At the same time, leaders are realistic about expectations. Their motto is: stretch, don’t strain. Pretend you’re training for the Olympics, where easy does it. If you pull a muscle in today’s game, you sit on the bench for tomorrow’s.






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