Leaping over middle management, Warren Bennis soared straight to the top when he created the USC Leadership Institute, a national hub for leadership research at the organizational pinnacle.
arren Bennis could have just rested on his laurels. By the time he came to USC in 1980, the former University of Cincinnati president was already a world-famous management guru and corporate consultant, author of a dozen influential books, a noted expert on organizational change and leadership.
“If anyone was ever justified in doing nothing, it is Warren Bennis,” muses USC management and organization professor Thomas Cummings, chair of Bennis’ department in the USC Marshall School of Business. Instead, he behaves like a junior faculty member bucking for tenure. For the last 20 years, Bennis has hurled himself, his department, the Marshall School and USC into a breathless whirl of activity.
His most tangible achievement is the USC Leadership Institute, which he founded in 1991. The institute – the first of its kind at an American university – has made the Marshall School an intellectual hub for the study of executive leadership. Today, some 15 other centers are modeled on this prototype, including one at Harvard.
Leadership research had been around for a long time, but it was geared to the middle and lower echelons. Bennis’ institute carved out a new niche – the study of leadership at the organizational pinnacle. While other researchers were quibbling over how to control workers on the shop floor, Bennis made a bee-line for what Cummings calls “the big issues”: visionary and transformational leadership, the executive’s role in a global economy and a climate of rapid technological change.
“If that’s all Warren did at USC, we would all be on our feet applauding,” says Cummings. But it’s only the beginning.
Bennis has continued to publish at a furious pace, adding a dozen books and hundreds of articles to his canon. He still consults for major corporations, yet he never stints his most precious commodity – his intellect and his time – when it’s wanted in the service of USC.
For example, he chaired the presidential search committee that hired Steven B. Sample. His work on other search committees helped tap the last two Marshall School deans, athletic director Mike Garrett, USC Annenberg Center director Elizabeth Daley and many chaired professors across USC. He has worked on committees reviewing everything from undergraduate education to faculty appointments and promotions.
“His impact on USC has been enormous, not just because he has a national reputation. I’m talking hard work – real institution building,” Cummings says.

YET BENNIS REMAINS, at heart, an academic who continually adds to his department’s intellectual life. The famed guru regularly attends departmental research seminars. He makes a point of mentoring junior faculty, and gets involved in the department’s ongoing recruitment efforts.
“Warren invariably meets [candidates] for breakfast at 8 o’clock, then drives them to campus,” Cummings notes.
As a teacher, Bennis keeps in touch with undergraduates through “The Art and Adventure of Leadership,” a course he team-teaches each spring with Sample.
“Warren’s chief delight in life is cultivating people,” says course TA Elizabeth Bleicher, a doctoral student in English. “The way you would nurture an exotic plant or flower, he nurtures people.”
The class, which is open by application to 40 undergraduate leaders-in-the-making, is extremely demanding. Students absorb 1,000 pages of required readings and produce eight papers. Bennis reads each and every one of these assignments, filling the margins with notes. And he takes every student to lunch to offer tips on writing as well as leadership.
Not surprisingly, Bennis earns perfect marks on student evaluations. Last spring’s class went so far as to nominate him for the American presidency. On a final exam question asking who would make the best commander-in-chief among the historic and living leaders the class had covered (the list included Washington, Gandhi, FDR and Thatcher), students most often argued for Bennis himself.
One reason they respect Bennis so much is because he doesn’t condescend. Last term, an earnest young man with political aspirations asked for Michael Dukakis’ phone number (the former Massachusetts governor had been a guest speaker in the class). Bennis furnished the number without hesitation.
“When you work with Warren Bennis, it’s a transformative process – you don’t leave the way you came,” says Bleicher. “Something happens to you. He makes people better versions of themselves.”

– Diane Krieger

Bennis' books currently number 26, but that figure is a moving target. His forthcoming book, Co-Leaders: The Power of Great Partnerships, co-authored by David A. Heenan, will be published in September.

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