Warren G. Bennis, former UB provost, scholar on leadership - The Buffalo News
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Warren G. Bennis, former UB provost, scholar on leadership

March 8, 1925 – July 31, 2014

NEW YORK – Warren G. Bennis, a former University at Buffalo provost and eminent scholar and author who advised presidents and business executives on his academic specialty, the essence of successful leadership – a commodity he found in short supply in recent decades – died Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 89.

The University of Southern California, where he had been a distinguished professor of business administration for more than 30 years, announced his death Friday. He lived in Santa Monica, Calif.

Bennis wrote more than 30 books on leadership, a subject that grabbed his attention early in life, when he led a platoon during World War II at the age of 19.

“I look at Peter Drucker as the father of management and Warren Bennis as the father of leadership,” William W. George, a professor at the Harvard Business School and a former chief executive of the medical device company Medtronic, said in an interview in 2009.

As a consultant, Bennis was sought out by generations of business leaders, among them Howard D. Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, who regarded him as a mentor. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan all conferred with him.

As an educator, he taught organizational studies at Harvard, Boston University and the MIT Sloan School of Management. Bennis believed in the adage that great leaders are not born but made, insisting that “the process of becoming a leader is similar, if not identical, to becoming a fully integrated human being,” he said in an interview in 2009. Both, he said, were grounded in self-discovery.

In his influential book “On Becoming a Leader,” published in 1989, Bennis wrote that a successful leader must first have a guiding vision of the task or mission to be accomplished and the strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failure. Another requirement, he said, is “a very particular passion for a vocation, a profession, a course of action.”

“The leader who communicates passion gives hope and inspiration to other people,” he wrote.

Integrity, he said, is imperative: “The leader never lies to himself, especially about himself, knows his flaws as well as his assets, and deals with them directly.”

So, too, are curiosity and daring: “The leader wonders about everything, wants to learn as much as he can, is willing to take risks, experiment, try new things. He does not worry about failure but embraces errors, knowing he will learn from them.”

But Bennis said he found such leadership largely missing in the late 20th century in all quarters of society – in business, politics, academia and the military. In “On Becoming a Leader,” he took aim at corporate leadership, finding it particularly ineffectual and tracing its failings in part to corporate corruption, extravagant executive compensation and an undue emphasis on quarterly earnings over long-term benefits, both for the business itself and society at large.

“We are at least halfway through the looking glass, on our way to utter chaos,” he wrote in “On Becoming a Leader.” “When the very model of a modern manager becomes CEO, he does not become a leader, he becomes a boss, and it is the bosses who have gotten America into its current fix.”

Warren Gamaliel Bennis was born in the Bronx on March 8, 1925. He grew up in Westwood, N.J., during the Great Depression.

With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the Army and completed officers’ training at Fort Benning, Georgia. In 1944, as a newly commissioned 19-year old lieutenant, he became one of the youngest platoon leaders to serve in Europe, arriving just as the Battle of the Bulge was concluding. He was awarded both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

After the war he enrolled at Antioch College in Ohio and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1947. Its innovative president, Douglas McGregor, a social psychologist, had taken him under his wing and recommended him to MIT for postgraduate work. There he completed a doctorate in economics, studying under Paul A. Samuelson, Franco Modigliani and Robert M. Solow, all of whom were later awarded the Nobel in economic science. Organizational behavior was an emerging academic discipline, and Bennis immersed himself in it.

In 1967, Bennis took a break from theoretical work and accepted an appointment as provost of the State University of New York at Buffalo for four years. That was followed by a seven-year stint as president of the University of Cincinnati.

Rather than hubris and arrogance, he said, this new generation’s brand of leadership may well be characterized by “respect, not just tolerance.” He saw signs that business leaders in the decades to come, inheriting a diverse and complex global environment, would have a better understanding of the territory in which they lead – what he called “contextual intelligence.”

— New York Times

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