In memoriam: Warren Bennis, 89
The internationally recognized authority on leadership leaves a legacy of scholarship
Warren Bennis: Smart Leaders Collaborate
Warren Bennis is the father of modern leadership in my opinion, the founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at USC. I think you have written probably or co-authored 30 books.
The first question that popped into my mind, when you look at today’s leader, when you look at a modern 2011 leader or a Barack Obama, do you see a difference between the one you saw back when you were thrust into this leadership thing in the military? What’s the difference?
That’s a huge question. I’ll just take a few cracks at it. My feeling is we have to try to get as many of your questions in as we can.
The difference is profound. What comes to my mind almost immediately is complexity. Things only seem complex to people living in a particular era, a particular time — can you imagine the time when President Roosevelt took office in 1933, there was something like 29 million telephones in this country. There must be 29 millions cellphones ringing right at this moment as we’re talking all over the world.
If you take one big issue, the complexity of the fact is that due to media, TV, and certainly who could not mention social networking on a program that takes place in 2001, you realize that the big difference is how quickly and how fast space is condensed, time is condensed. Immediate communication is getting us faster or getting us quicker. Everything is more complex.
The problem with leadership is really almost one of not IQ but it’s the capacity to handle cognitive complexity. Can you imagine the kinds of things that are on our President’s desk right now? You’ve got things exploding. You haven’t even looked at the newspaper you have today. Things exploding and it’s spreading like an epidemic of flu; protests across all those Middle Eastern countries. What’s going on right now in Libya with hundreds of people being shot.
What I’m getting at is, the leader of today— I’m not just talking about state leaders. I’m not just talking Barack Obama. Just to give you one little example, when I was first getting my political consciousness which was 1933 with the new president in office — again, think of what I said about the number of telephones in 1933 — there were 60 million people listening to those fireside chats with Roosevelt.
We were homogenous country. We were pretty well isolated. We had enough resources. We didn’t had to do much trading. To compare 1933 with this year of 2011 and the world at this time, but then take the corporate world, the educational world.
To add one more thing, it may sound abstract, there will be something like 7 billion people on this Earth before the end of this year and a lot of it is going on in the world that had been colonialized for hundreds of years.
I think of India right now — I lived in Calcutta for two years back in ’64-’65. This is a country that just recently sealed a deal with British Petroleum. They paid India somehow like 8 billion dollars and there will be a lot more. The Reliance company in India which is owned by the fourth richest man in the world.
What’s interesting about that deal is that BP is buying acres of sea coast where they have natural gas over the whole east coast of India. They are paying about 8 billion dollars and they are going to pay a lot more. They are going to have that natural gas at their disposal, 40% of which will take care of India itself.
So what I’m getting at? The most important thing about that deal, they may not 5:23 it, India is taking like a 15-year bet that this is going to work out. Can you imagine in India when I lived there putting up that kind of money to have a coalition with BP, but to take a 15 to 20 year bet on something. India was living day to day.
In 1964, I visited a village people didn’t know that Kennedy had been assassinated. There was no radio. There were no telephones. Now the world we live in is totally wired. We are globally wired every minute. It’s gorgeous. It’s marvelous. It’s so challenging, scary, and adventurous. It’s going to take leadership. It’s a very, very demanding job that we’ve ever had in the world ever.