Bennis is one of the world’s pioneering experts on leadership, and works as a lecturer, organizational consultant, and author. He has advised four U.S. presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and has consulted for several Fortune 500 companies, as well as the United Nations. Bennis has written or co-authored 30 books, including the bestseller On Becoming a Leader and the recently released Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership, with Patricia Ward Biederman.
He is the recipient of 11 honorary degrees, and in 2007, BusinessWeek named him one of the top 10 business school professors who has had the greatest influence on business thinking. Bennis also serves as the chair for the advisory board of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Q|What strengths did you gain from your experience as a 19-year-old soldier leading others in World War II?
I never thought I had any leadership qualities in me until those gold bars were put on my shoulders. But suddenly I learned I did as a result of being put into this role as a leader. I was what was known as a replacement officer. I was joining a division of the infantry that had already been in combat for five months. They were already a seasoned troop, and I joined them as a young shavetail (that's what they called us new second lieutenants).
The role that I was placed in was to lead men who were actually more experienced than was. I realized for the first time in life that I was capable though I felt that my troops had to really train me in order to become their leader.
At three in the morning my first night, the runner took me from company headquarters to the platoon right on the front lines. We were living, just for that one night, in a bombed-out house with no roof. I couldn't sleep all night because I was so nervous, and there was artillery going on over our head making a lot of racket.
In the early morning, I heard the first sergeant say to the runner, "Who's that guy?" And he said, "He's our new lieutenant." And I waited, holding my breath, to see what the first sergeant would say. And he said, "Good. We can use him." And so I learned most of all to abandon my ego to the talents of those men I was asked to lead by virtue of the fact that I was a second lieutenant.
I realized the importance of being placed into a role where other people have expectations of you. I also gained an understanding of what humility is, and how helpful it was when I listened, and how extraordinarily behind me these men were because our fates were correlated. The extent to which I was confident would be helpful to them.
Q|Beginning at Antioch College, your mentor was Professor Douglas McGregor. How did he influence you?
Doug McGregor is really one of the foundation figures of the whole field of organizational management and leadership, as well as group dynamics. He was an extraordinary human being.
When I was in my sophomore year at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Doug became president. He revolutionized, galvanized, and energized the campus by calling off all regular courses for a week for both students and faculty to freshly imagine what the goals of the college would be.
He was a very charismatic, charming, open, and candid person. Doug was the kind of person I wanted to be though we were so different and from completely different backgrounds. I started to grow a moustache like he did, and I wish I could have dyed my hair reddish-brown; mine was jet-black at the time. I asked him if I could do a tutorial with him in my junior year. During that tutorial in the President's Office, I became his indispensable assistant, though it wasn't necessarily conscious on my part. I went on trips with him, and I carried his briefcase. I went to New York with him and ate at his favorite steak places. It's a cliche, but he was the father I never had.
He was also so influential on my life in a very clear way. I don't think I would have gotten into MIT without his three-page letter of recommendation. I don't think I would have gotten tenure at MIT if it weren't for Doug's strong voice. He put his money on the line. I wouldn't be here talking to you today if it weren't for him.
I owe so much to this man, and I will always feel grateful to him. After I got my Ph.D., I went to Boston University for three years, because MIT liked to send its newly minted doctorate recipients out to other universities. It turns out that Doug returns to MIT from Antioch after six years, and one of the first things he did was try to get me hired there as a faculty member.
When I returned there in 1959, our age differences did not seem so important. We became very good friends. And when he died, at the very early age of 58, his wife Caroline asked me if I would give a eulogy for him at the MIT Chapel, which I did. I get a little teary just thinking about Doug and that day.
I know Doug felt grateful to me in many ways. I think I was as close to him when he died as anyone other than his wife. Whatever you give, you get back in droves, and that was certainly true with him. Everything is returned. I go out of my way to be a mentor to as many young people as I can. Even if it doesn't pay off while I'm alive, it's going to pay off eventually. My legacy is not so much anything more than how many students I have reached, and Doug McGregor taught me that.
Q|Can you talk about your time as provost at SUNY, Buffalo and president of University of Cincinnati?
I spent four years at SUNY, Buffalo as provost. Provost is the number two academic leader. All faculty matters come before the provost. People were very curious why I was leaving MIT, a very well-known institution. I was chairman of the department in an office overlooking the Charles River, and why was I leaving that for a state university in Buffalo? The main reason was I really wanted to be a college and university president like Doug. So I made it known that I wanted to be provost, and finally I was selected and served there. It really gave me a global view of the university. Antioch and MIT were not your typical colleges; they were both very different. Antioch was very politically correct before the term was even coined and MIT was a highly technical and scientific school where math and science were the main tickets for success. The truth is I never thought I would be distinctive at MIT. I wasn't secure enough to think that. But I thought if I became an administrator plus an MIT Ph.D., then I could really go places.
But I also wanted to be a university president. So after four years at SUNY, Buffalo, during the stormiest times of student protests, I went to the University of Cincinnati, and spent seven years there.
What I realized most of all from those experiences was that being a university administrator, whether a provost or a president, wasn't my first calling. My calling was clearly teaching and writing. That was where my heart lay. I also learned what it's like to lead and be really responsible. I wouldn't have missed those years for the world, but I also wouldn't want to do them again.
So then, after a year's leave where I lived in a houseboat, I decided to see if I could get a teaching position at a good university. I chose USC because I thought the West was where the action and entrepreneurialism were. I could have gone to a more Ivy League University as Yale made a nice offer to me, but I just felt that Southern California was calling me. And now I've been here for the past 30 years.
Q|Are there any stories you'd like to share from your year spent living on a houseboat in Sausalito and working with Werner Erhard?
That particular year, my wife and I divorced, and I was living alone. And for reasons I still don't understand, I wanted to live on a houseboat. Then while I was at lunch in San Francisco with a very good friend of mine, I told him that I saw the houseboats in Sausalito, and they always looked so romantic to me. While I was talking to him, a waitress overheard our conversation, recommended a houseboat to me, and set me up.
During that year, Werner Erhard, who was flying high on the whole est movement, called me up and asked if I wouldn't do some consulting for his organization that he headed and founded. So I began seeing Werner once a week, we became friends, and I consulted for him. It was the only real job I had that year.
Werner was a man beyond my understanding. He was part-evangelist, part-cult leader, though I don't think he would want to be described that way. He was very interested in how do we get people to restore and renew who they are as individuals to find out what they want and need. While he was a figure that academics held with some suspicion, I found him educational in his imagination of how to help large numbers of people find out who they were and what they wanted to accomplish in life. I thought that this is a very powerful technique that I myself couldn't use but profited from observing.
I understand the criticisms made of him very much, but I think he's a person who has added a certain value to our society, even though that's not a very common point-of-view. He was a powerful educator. During that year (1979), he introduced me to a whole new ethos with the burgeoning of human development. It was like a cafeteria, a marvelous sampling of all the roots of what today would be called human potential. That's what that year did for me.
Q|What do you find rewarding about your work as a professor and academic?
I cannot think of a more noble profession for me than education. One of the most important things to me is helping people grow into fully integrated human beings. My teaching career has been having the opportunity to work with students and helping them fully realize their potentialities and their career choices.
I do feel that I'm a master teacher. I feel that I'm a good writer and public speaker, but I'm not sure I could call myself a master of those.
I find myself here through luck, circumstance, and roles that pulled out things that I had no idea I was capable of until they were sucked out of me. I do think there are possible selves, and I think some people go through life never testing those possibilities. I do give myself credit for being an adventurer. I didn't have to apply to Officer Candidate School, where I
knew that the average tenure in combat before being killed or wounded was between six weeks and two months.
Why would I become a university administrator when I had a comfortable tenure at MIT where I wouldn't have to face student protests? I kept putting myself in harm's way, but I'll always be grateful for what life was pulling out of me in roles that I undertook.
Q|What inspired you to start the Leadership Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business?
I started with help from a number of colleagues in 1992. It went pretty well for a few years, but then I got tired of raising money for it. The new dean, Jim Ellis, is going to revive it, and I'm going to try and give him a helping hand with that. What could be more important than having the very best offerings in leadership and leadership development? Leadership is so significant. From a micro level, it's been well-documented that bad bosses can create lots of illnesses in their employees, and good bosses often bring out the better angles in us, as Abraham Lincoln put it.
My favorite story about how important leadership is goes back to the year 1931. A middle-aged Brit Englishman is crossing 5th Avenue and gets hit by a New York City cab, and is in a hospital recovering for the next three or four months. About 14 months later, a convertible with two men in the backseat is driving through the streets of Miami. An anarchist takes careful aim at one of the people in the backseat, shoots and misses his target, and kills the person on the left of the person he wanted to kill. Well, the Brit who was crossing 5th Avenue in 1931 was Winston Churchill, and the guy that the anarchist assassin missed, but was aiming to kill was Franklin Roosevelt. Can you imagine how different the world would be if those two men were shot and killed? So that's an example of the significance of leadership at the macro level.
Leadership isn't just about one person though. Effective leaders build a team. I've long given up the American narrative of the great man or woman. It's always a small group or team at the top. A key characteristic of a really good leader is creating a team. To use a Japanese proverb, "No one is as smart as all of us." Think of the proliferation of the C-word these days: CEO, COO, CFO, Chief Wisdom Officer, Chief Spiritual Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, and so on. You can't do it on your own anymore. Even smaller firms need a team. Small groups of people have always changed the world, and that remains true at the corporate level. It's never truer than it is today.
Q|Could you explain how crucibles define one's leadership journey?
While I was writing Geeks and Geezers (about leaders under 32 and leaders 70 and over) with Bob Thomas, I noticed in our interviews that whenever we asked if there were any defining moments that shaped someone as a leader, our interviewees began telling marvelous stories. If you look up crucible in the dictionary, it means a testing period - a period when you're called on to make key decisions about your life. It's a defining event, and there's not just one of them. We live a life of crucibles. Being born is a crucible.
Crucibles are those periods that you go through that help determine the kind of person you are and the kind of value you'll have. If you ask leaders, they'd all be able to relate. If you really want to start a good conversation, ask people about those crucible moments when they were tested. The stories people tell you are so rich, fascinating, and important.
Some crucibles happen to you involuntarily if you get stuck in a flood or an earthquake, and some crucibles are ones that you volunteer for. I think they both have different effects on you. I want to emphasize, though, that there's not just one crucible. As we live our lives and grow, we go through these testing moments a lot.