Continued
After Warren went to Cincinnati, we lost track of each other for a couple of decades. It was only after I moved to Los Angeles in 1984 to become a reporter at the Los Angeles Times that I learned he was at USC. Oh, and in the interval, he had become one of the giants in his field.
Happily, we began collaborating again. I worked with him on a series of articles and books, including An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change, published in 1993. That book, as many know, is a collection of Warren’s thoughtful pieces on such varied topics as the Wallenda Factor (that allows leaders to walk their particular tight-ropes) and the importance of “followership.” It also includes a terrific autobiographical piece called “An Invented Life: Shoe Polish, Milli Vanilli and Sapiential Circles.” In 36 pages, Warren masterfully presents a version of his life “to illuminate the work I’ve done that readers are most likely to know.” It is a story about self-invention and re-invention, themes applicable to everyone’s personal and professional life. In it, you learn about a boy from Westwood, New Jersey, who hated carrying an accordion on the bus, and how he came to be someone whose counsel is sought by leaders around the world, including the man who may be the next president of the United States, Al Gore.
In that important essay, many of the major themes that mark Warren’s work are placed in the context of his life, including his early interest in leadership, piqued by older twin brothers – one of whom was a born leader, the other a natural follower. The memoir is classic Bennis: funny, insightful, learned, moving and above all creative. One of his great strengths as a writer is his near-phobic avoidance of jargon. Whenever you read Warren’s work, you are reminded that there is a poet inside, as well as a powerful thinker and perhaps a little standup comic as well.
He has a genius for turning personal experience, however bleak, into material that resonates with others. Autobiographical writing is remarkably tricky, as anyone who tries it soon discovers. It’s all too easy to invest enormous energy into writing about yourself, only to create a persona that your readers hate (the recent craze for memoir has produced many examples, a surprising number by people who used to work at The New Yorker). But I was struck anew with admiration for Warren when I read the first draft of his “Invented Life” essay. Warren understands the power of stories and knows how to tell unforgettable ones without trying his reader’s patience. There is a heartbreaking portrait of Captain Bessenger, a natural leader who saved Warren’s life when he was a 19-year-old infantry officer during World War II. And there are tributes to some of his mentors, including Douglas McGregor, who pioneered the field of organizational studies and whose death at the age of 58 still saddens Warren.
His encyclopedic learning is there, always, including a discussion of Oxford philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between intellectual hedgehogs, who know one big thing, and foxes, who know many things and can’t wait to learn new ones. But what makes the essay irresistible are the revealing little stories. You see the man who would go on to write bestsellers about leadership as an eighth-grader dazzling his teacher and classmates with his skill at polishing shoes, creating a personal triumph with nothing but wit and a can of oxblood-colored shoe polish. And you a get glimpse of Warren’s emotional and social education in a delicately rendered little tribute to the person who taught him how to eat an artichoke.

IN 1996 WARREN graciously offered me the opportunity to collaborate with him on Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. He had first had the idea for a study of great collaborations back in his days in Cambridge. When he mentioned it to anthropologist Margaret Mead, she said it was a great idea and suggested he call the book “Sapiential Circles.” Warren has a gift for collaborating and understands that a successful collaboration is worth the discomfort of sharing power. Even though we had now known each for decades, working on this project was a revelation. One of the principles of the book is expressed in the line: “None of us is as smart as all of us” (a quote, by the way, whose source we have never been able to determine). When you sit down to do intellectual work with Warren, you know you’re going to think more creatively as a result. You have to stretch. Because he sometimes seems to know everybody and to have read everything; to have understood it, remembered it and alchemized it into something new and valuable.
Warren is an idea junkie. Ideas obviously thrill him. There is no doubt that in the Isaiah Berlin taxonomy, Warren is a fox – one whose view of the world is always evolving as he pounces on new ideas and incorporates them into his always-evolving world view. As you grow older, you become exquisitely aware that time is too precious to spend with people who don’t stimulate and teach you. A single example of something important Warren taught me in the course of writing our book: He told me about the groundbreaking 1951 experiment by social psychologist Solomon Asch on the effect of social pressure on perception. In the experiment, student participants were asked to say which of three lines of different lengths, displayed on a card, was the same length as another line, also on display. The experiment was set up so that one student would hear all the others choose incorrectly (all but the target student were in on the experiment). One third of the time, the target student went along with his peers des-pite the evidence before his eyes. The Asch experiment had an enormous influence on much of the important research on groups, social pressure and evil, for want of a better word, that followed.
One of Warren’s enormous strengths as a thinker is his understanding of human be-havior, grounded in science and enhanced by art and intuition. He has always been a student, of human behavior, whether observing his brothers, as a graduate student or as he has interacted with his vast network of colleagues and collaborators, including the students he so values at USC.
One continuing collaboration that he clearly treasures is co-teaching a course on leadership with President Sample. When I asked what he had learned from Warren, Sample (who, coincidentally, was president of SUNY/Buffalo a dozen years after Bennis left) cited many things, including a great deal about leadership and teaching. Then we talked briefly about Warren’s remarkable “emotional intelligence,” a term that could have been invented for him. Warren had once observed to Sample that he himself possessed “good personal radar,” while the USC president had a “good gyroscope. You can set a direction and stay with it pretty well.” It was the kind of sharp insight that Warren can make because he studies other people and, rarer still, he listens to them closely and perceptively. Someone clumsier than Warren, as most of us are, might have turned that observation into something slightly offensive. Instead, Sample said, it made him decide to be a bit “more serendipitous” and spontaneous – a little more radar, a little less gyroscope. You learn things about yourself, as well as organizations, when you work with Warren Bennis.

IN ORGANIZING GENIUS, we talk about fun as an indicator of the worthiness of a project. “Great groups” are places filled with laughter and even foolishness, as well as obsessive problem solving. When we were writing, Warren and I had fun. Writing – especially writing on deadline – is hard, nerve-racking work, and we certainly didn’t have fun every minute. But we knew that fun could break out at any time. Warren has a vast repertoire of jokes. Virtually every time we get together, he hits me with one, occasionally one with a Yiddish punch line. These are not always good jokes. But there is something intrinsically generous about starting an interaction with a joke. The joke-teller is always vulnerable, wondering whether the laugh will come, making it an act of courage as well.
Another joy of working with Warren is his civility, too rare a quality and one that I suspect has helped him to succeed almost as much as his fine mind. No matter how under-the-gun we were, no matter how tight the deadline, he was invariably polite, even courtly. Like humor, that too counts for a lot. Nothing sabotages a creative collaboration quicker than a failure to treat your colleagues decently – something young Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs failed to do, but that time seems to have taught the older Jobs.
Warren is unfailingly generous with his collaborators. First off, they get to attend a Management School of One, taught by a master. Moreover, he allows them to reap the benefits of his name and reputation. As Fast Company and other hip management publications are always declaring, nothing is more valuable these days than “Brand You.” Warren’s brand is one of enormous clout, including the ability to get handsome advances and sell books, both here and abroad. It is the Lexus of such brands, universally admired for its quality. The person who collaborates with Warren greatly enhances his or her chances of making the Business Week bestseller list or being called a “leadership guru.” And sharing a book cover with Warren means never going into a reputable bookstore without a good shot at finding your book on the stretch of shelf devoted to the collected and still increasing works of Warren Bennis.

ONE OF THE THINGS I now do is look to people who are older than I am for lessons in continuing to live well. Warren has been a superb model. The last time we met for breakfast at the Rose Café – within walking distance of the Santa Monica home he shares with his beloved wife, Grace – he was full of ideas and excitement about his new book-in-progress. First, of course, he told a joke. Then we batted ideas back and forth while he ate his bowl of fruit and I, my bagel.
For all the honors, for all the success, Warren is still hungry. He thinks on his feet as well as anyone I know, which is one reason my reporter colleagues constantly turn to him for comment, knowing he’s always good for a quote that is both vivid and thoughtful (“good copy,” we say in high praise of such rare people). At this point in his life, he has become an intellectual entrepreneur – an example of the very engine of the new economy he has described so vividly, the person of ideas. He talked about his new book with the passion of a graduate student who had drunk just one cup of coffee too many. The ideas spilled out. He obviously couldn’t wait to get back to his office and to work. It was heart-warming to look across the table and see the essential Warren Bennis unchanged.
At Warren’s festschrift, Charles Handy recalled the old Chinese proverb that says happiness depends on “something to work on, something to hope for and someone to love.” He described his friend, at 75, as “a happy man in the prime of life.” Talking to him at the Rose, I thought of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” in which the great hero looks forward, not back, and declares that “some work of noble note, may yet be done.” If Warren’s enthusiasm is any indicator, his next book will be his best yet. I left the Rose smiling, and inspired.



Related Stories

Bennis on MAKING CHANGE

Bennis on CATS AND RATS

The Air Up There

Collaborating with Warren Bennis


Related Links

Interview with Bennis

Books By Warren Bennis

Why Can't Leaders Lead?


Features --All Abroad - Second Sight - Warren Bennis
Departments -- Mailbag - On Stage - What's New - In Support - Alumni News - The Last Word

Home