Still Surprised

A Memoir of a Life in Leadership


Warren Bennis

Jossey-Bass, 2010, 126 pp.  ISBN 978-0-470-43238-9


Bennis is perhaps the top name in organizational leadership and his memoirs include some choice leadership tidbits.  Now nearing 90, he has lived and rubbed shoulders with the great humanistic minds of the last four generations.  I admire his leadership insights but I would not want to model my life after his.


In the army, he learned from Captain Bessinger that it was important to listen to his men, to get valuable information and show respect for them.  (9)


The roles we play in the course of our lives have more to do with our successes or failures than our personal histories.  When he put on the army uniform and the gold bars, he became an officer and stepped into the attitudes and behaviors required.  (15)


I scrutinize everything that happens to me for meaning, for nuance, for the lessons the moment might contain. (19)


"The term mentor doesn't do justice to what a great one does. … A mentor does so much more than share his or her wisdom with the mentored.  The mentor allows the protégé to share in his or her achievement, an extraordinary gift.  Moreover, the mentor puts his or her reputation on the line with every good word dropped about the mentored to people in power, every recommendation made.  In that sense, mentoring is an act of faith." (41)


Douglas McGregor, author of the landmark management book, The Human Side of Enterprise (Think Theory X, Theory Y), was his mentor.  One of his MIT colleagues pointed out that McGregor had a rare ability "to absorb punishment."  It serves leaders well.  "He would dispassionately assess criticism, act on the valid points, and forget the rest."  (43) 


McGregor learned at Antioch that although it was good to be non-authoritarian with his constituents, in the end, the leader must lead. (58)


Re his first marriage:  "Lucille and I didn't fight, didn't yell.  We cried a little, but mostly we stood by doing nothing as our marriage unraveled."  (1952)


The leader must never get overly involved with its sickest member.  The leader who is hijacked by extreme pathology pays a terrible price.  The group will become polarized.  The only way to deal with it is to allow the healthier members of the group deal with it collectively.  (60)


"Until the Internet upended traditional notions of proximity, ideas tended to spread much like colds, as a result of one person coming into physical contact with another." (75)


"I write so I know what I think.  I increasingly found myself reaching for language that would illuminate, not just describe what I was learning." (80)


At Bethel, "the most important thing I learned was how to listen, truly listen. …  Listening is an art, a demanding one that requires you to damp down your own ego and make yourself fully available to someone else.  As listener, you must stop performing and only attend and process.  If you listen closely enough, you can hear what the speaker really means, whatever the words.  And paying undivided, respectful attention inevitably makes you more empathic, one of the most important and most undervalued leadership skills." (89)


"To a degree rarely recognized, adjacency matters.  Whatever your rank, having an office next to the president of the United States almost always means you will know more and have more influence than the Cabinet secretary who is a 20-minute limousine ride removed from the White House.  There is something about seeing someone every day that creates trust. … Proximity leads to access, which leads to power.  To have a seat at the table, you first have to be in the room." (92)


"As Howard Gardner and others have pointed out, immersion in other cultures is often key to becoming a leader."  (105)


At the State University of New York at Buffalo, "we shared the view that technological solutions were not enough to solve the most important human problems.  Instead we had to create better organizations and institutions…." (113)


"The truly important things always compete with crisis management for a leader's time, and the truly important things often lose out." (118)


At Buffalo, "We forgot that no established organization is a blank canvas.  Change agents should hang samplers on their walls bearing the wise words of A. N. Whitehead: 'Every leader, to be effective, must simultaneously adhere to the symbols of change and revision and the symbols of tradition and stability.'" (119)


Recruiting lesson:  "Get to know as many talented people as possible in many different fields and engage them sufficiently that they take your calls or, even better, they call you." (131)


Another little personal insight:  After a heart attack and a second divorce after 17 years of marriage, Bennis spent a year on a houseboat near the Golden Gate Bridge.  "Expanding one's consciousness was the rage in Northern California, and I tried just about every New Age-y, counterculture thing that came along."  (167)  Between his first and second marriage, Bennis had been engaged to Grace Gabe.  Before the wedding he began to have doubts and expressed them to his analyst who advised him, "You have to put yourself first."  (174)  So he precipitously ended the relationship.  (In 1990, more than 30 years later and after a third divorce, he reconnected with Grace Gabe and married her.  They are still married.  (174)


"As one ages, making good decisions literally becomes a matter of life and death." (178) 


"Entrepreneurs fear boredom more than chaos.  They become anxious when things are too stable, and often abandon the familiar for the risky." (181)


In interviews with more than 90 top leaders for the book, Leaders, he and his co-author, Burt Nanus were poring over the information looking for patterns.  "Our most unexpected and least useful discovery: almost every one of our leaders was married to his or her original spouse."  (181) [Alternatively, perhaps this is significant.  DLM]


"Making judgment calls, we concluded, is the primary job of a leader, the DNA of leadership.  With good judgment, little else matters.  Without good judgment, nothing else matters."  (194) 


I felt some empathy for Bennis as I read his philosophical final chapter on aging.  "…the crucible of age is the most exciting, demanding, curious, frightening, fulfilling, and educational of my life. … As I get older, I find that I am more sensitive, more likely to be hurt, more likely to weep, and more likely to feel elated, even joyful." (199-100)  "One aspect of aging I hadn't anticipated was the intense bias in our culture against the old." (203)  "A friend says that one way you know you are regarded as old is that people often use the word still in speaking to you.  Examples: 'You've still got it' and 'Are you still working?'  they remind the aging person, not of his or her agility or acumen, but of diminished status and loss of power.  They make an old person feel vulnerable and small." (201-04) 


"Just as it takes a village to raise a child, you need a team to age successfully."  For Bennis this includes the following people: his wife, cardiologist, internist, neurologist, housekeeper, personal trainer, professional assistant, and Buddhist teacher. 


"The bad news is we are conscious of our own mortality.  My usual strategy for dealing with this unsettling reality is not denial but avoidance."  (207) 


"In spite of illness, in spite even of the arch-enemy, sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways."  (213, quoting Edith Wharton)