It is an honor to have been asked to write this piece about Warren Bennis, whose enormous impact on the field of leadership and the management of change was acknowledged in May with a much deserved festschrift.
Like so many others, I feel Ive known him for the better part of a lifetime. He and I began collaborating in the late 1960s when he asked me to work on one of his early books, The Leaning Ivory Tower (1973). I was a young writer at the time, a new mother and utterly unaware that new worlds were about to be revealed.
When we met, Warren was the new provost of social sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo. If you werent there, it is hard to describe the excitement of that time and place. I know, I know, you are thinking, Buffalo, New York? But SUNY/Buffalo was not simply a provincial university in a place best known for chicken wings and bad weather. SUNY/Buffalo was reinventing itself at a time when the whole world was rethinking what a university was. Grand ideas about education and the roles and obligations of students and teachers were in the air. Edgar Z. Friedenberg, one of the legendary mavericks of the philosophy of education, was on campus, as were others who were throwing out time-honored notions of what college was and proposing radical new ones that would shape the ideas about education we take for granted today.
How revolutionary were these ideas? Well, lets just say that when Warren first arrived on campus, the accepted notion was that a college education was something that happened between the ages of 18 and 22. If you missed that tiny window of opportunity and didnt go to college then, you might never have another chance to do so. You were doomed to a life of TV, not of the mind. By the time Warren left UB, as we all called SUNY/Buffalo, the nation had come to accept the once-extraordinary notion that learning was something that happened for a lifetime.
That was only one of the changes that happened on his watch at UB, albeit one of the most important ones. Others included the blurring of the distinction between the kind of learning that takes place on campus and the kind that takes place everywhere else. These ideas are commonplace now, the rationale for everything from workplace learning programs to Elderhostel. But at the time, they constituted nothing less than a paradigm shift, an idea that changed the world. Warren was not the sole cause of this shift, of course, but he was among the eloquent, creative voices that caused it.
Buffalo was shamelessly ambitious in those days. It wanted to be the Berkeley of the East or, as Warren later put it, an academic New Jerusalem. Everyone who was part of that great experiment was dizzy with hope. Warren was one of the most visible symbols of the universitys aspirations.
I REMEMBER THE FIRST timeI saw him. Just out of graduate school, I had taken a job in the universitys public relations office. My editor was a lapsed newspaperman with a sophisticated notion of what a campus public relations office could do. He believed we could tell the truth about campus events and keep our jobs which we did, though just barely. Warren was one of the highest profile hires by the campuss charismatic new president, Martin Meyerson, who was scavenging other universities for geniuses who could be lured to Buffalo (one big draw was the chance to pick up a Frank Lloyd Wright house for the price of a condo in Los Angeles) and building a $650 million campus from scratch. Warren had been a student of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson and other giants at MIT, where he had done groundbreaking work on groups and the structure and dynamics of organizations. He also had a burgeoning reputation as a futurist (a hot job title at the time), in part because of a much-talked-about 1964 piece in the Harvard Business Review titled Is Democracy Inevitable? That essay would be reprinted in HBR in 1990, just after the Berlin Wall fell, at which time we learned that Warren, with more prescience than even he knew he had, had originally titled it, with
characteristic confidence, Democracy Is Inevitable.
Warren had one of the most distinguished resumés of anyone on Meyersons wish list. He had taught at MIT and Harvard, had co-led a pioneering business school in Calcutta, and had already co-authored, though not yet published, The Temporary Society with sociologist Phil Slater (recently republished, that book may be even more relevant in todays world of constant change than it was when it came out in 1968). Warren was also part of a remarkable group of individuals, based in Cambridge, Mass., who were thinking about social interaction, organizations and change in new and exciting ways.
The campus building where I worked looked like Tara and had a fairly distinguished history. It was where Sloan Wilson, then head of university relations, had written his best-selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, on company time. Warrens offices were on the second floor, and he swept into the building one morning in the fall of 1967, unforgettably clad in a Tyrolean cape. Even if Warren hadnt had movie-star good looks (this is a man who was born to wear a tuxedo), that cape would have been an eye-catcher. Buffalo is not a city where most people bother to make fashion statements. For months at a time, Buffalonians go around in their parkas looking like the Michelin Man. Warrens was an unforgettable entrance.
Already possessed of an enviable Rolodex, he began recruiting and making the university a far more interesting place. A born catalyst, he began throwing huge parties as well as smaller, salon-like gatherings where ideas were swapped over wine. Friend Bruce Jackson, who holds an endowed chair in American culture at Buffalo, remembers one unforgettable night in 1968 when Warren screened Night and Fog, Alain Resnaiss haunting documentary about the Nazi death camps. The silence that followed got bigger and bigger until someone asked, But did ordinary Germans know any of that? They couldnt have known that. One of the 12 or so guests, German historian Conrad von Moltke, spoke up: We all knew. We all knew. (Von Moltkes father was one of the generals hanged with piano wire for trying to assassinate Hitler.) Jackson told me that whenever he runs into anyone who was there that night, they quickly come round to the screening at Warrens when von Moltke said: Everyone knew. Jackson said, Thats the sort of thing Warren could make happen.
INEVITABLY, WARREN TURNED his experiences at Buffalo into a book. Fortunately for me, he knew my work from campus publications and the occasional review I did for the morning paper, and he asked me to assist him on a first-person account of that turbulent period in campus history. At Buffalo, we saw the campus occupied by 600 armed state troopers. We watched with horror as tear gas blanketed the once-tranquil Main Street campus. We attended countless fundraisers for 45 faculty members who managed to get themselves arrested for occupying a campus building to protest the paramilitary presence on campus.
Buffalo was lucky compared to Kent State, Wisconsin and other campuses that suffered tragic losses during those days when students and their campus supporters sometimes died in the name of free speech and an end to the Vietnam War. It was an unprecedented period in academic history. Faculty and administrators never knew when they got to their offices in the morning who would be occupying them. Although the level of intellectual ferment was high and uncharacteristically loud for academia, little academic work in the traditional sense got done. Indeed when a student filmmaker subsequently made a movie about that period at Buffalo, he called it Andy Hardly Goes to College.
The book that Warren published in 1973, The Leaning Ivory Tower, raised issues about leadership including the ethical responsibility of leaders that would be central to much of his later work. Among the books high points is a hilarious account of a country-club lunch at which he was assaulted by a melon ball emitted by a sputtering trustee of Northwestern University (at the time, Warren was a candidate for that universitys presidency). It may be the funniest scene in a book on academic politics since Kingsley Amiss 1953 Lucky Jim.
Written with great verve, The Leaning Ivory Tower shows Warren at his wittiest (which is witty, indeed) and reveals much about his willingness to turn some awkward personal moment into a valuable lesson. The book, one of the few in the Bennis canon to fall out of print, is also classic Bennis in its concern with moral issues. These include the dilemma that most leaders must eventually grapple with: how and when to resign from an organization whose course you can no longer bear. The chapter on resigning ends in typical, rousing Bennis fashion: If we find it impossible to continue on as administrators because we are at total and continual odds with institutional policy, then I think we must quit and go out shouting. The alternative is petit-Eichmannism, and it is too high a price. Too bad petit-Eichmannism never found a place of honor in everyday speech.
Warren left Buffalo to become president of the University of Cincinnati in 1971. Becoming the president of a university was an inevitable next step for Warren, who had long been interested in blurring the boundary between the theory of leadership and its practice. Occasionally, Cincinnati would make headlines and I, still in Buffalo, would look for his name. He had been looking forward to heading a university and to being the kind of leader that Buffalo had so sorely lacked when its campus was under siege. But, as he has frequently said, the experience of actually leading a campus was a mixed one: I wouldnt have missed it for the world and I wouldnt want to do it again, he wrote recently.
However, Warren is like a good French chef: nothing is wasted. If he found academic leadership sometimes like trying to herd cats, it taught him lessons about the difference between leadership and management and other truths of organizational life that would find their way into his later work and into the curricula of every school of management in the world. His stint on the sultry Midwestern campus helped advance him toward the role he was born for not as the leader of a single institution, but as a thought-leader.
He began to write the books that have become manage-ment classics, including the 1989 bestseller On Becoming A Leader. Like all his work, that book is informed by Warrens vast learning. The brief preface begins with an allusion to Shakespeares Prospero and includes a wonderful line from T.S. Eliots The Hollow Men: Between the idea / And the reality / Falls the shadow.
Virtually everyone who aspires to leadership reads that book and takes notes. In whatever field, most of what is written has the shelf life of a raspberry. As USC President Steven Sample recently reminded me, Warrens work continues to be read long after it appears. To have written anything that is widely read after 12 years is quite extraordinary, Sample rightly noted.