ne of Warren Bennis’ axioms is that a leader should be able to bring out the best in those around him. In making that case, Warren loves to cite an old story about the difference between 19th-century British prime ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. It was said that, when you had dinner with Gladstone, you left feeling he was the wittiest, most brilliant, most charming person on earth. But when you had dinner with Disraeli, you left feeling that you were the wittiest, most brilliant, most charming person on earth.
In this respect, Bennis and Disraeli are exactly alike. Warren’s magnificently fine-tuned “personal radar” makes him extremely sensitive and receptive to what other people are thinking, feeling and saying. I’ve never encountered a person who is a better listener – who has that rare ability to make you feel as though you were the only person in the world.
I’ve learned much from Warren – but not simply because he is one of this generation’s greatest authorities on leadership or because he is one of USC’s most gifted faculty members. I’ve learned from him because of the kind of person he is. The high point of our friendship – and one of the highlights of my nine-plus years at USC – has been the undergraduate course we’ve taught together over the past five spring semesters, entitled “The Art and Adventure of Leadership.” Seeing him work with our students has given me a deep appreciation for what a wonderful coach and mentor he is.
Warren sports a highly un-usual and wonderful frankness – especially about himself. In one of his books, he candidly recalled being re-cruited for the presidency of Northwestern University. A lunchtime interview with a group of trustees turned hazardous when his blunt res-ponse to a question so rattled one of the trustees that the man choked on – and then involuntarily blasted out – a melon ball that smashed into Warren’s forehead. With that shot Warren knew the interview was finished, along with his candidacy. The value of Warren’s candor is that he is always willing to share the lessons he has learned, sometimes pain-fully and sometimes hilariously.
It’s breathtaking to consider the impact of Warren Bennis on the organizational life of this country. He is the author or co-author of more than 2,000 articles – including the seminal and prophetic 1964 essay “Is Democracy Inevitable?”
He is also the author or co-author of over two dozen bestselling books, in-cluding his signature book, On Becoming a Leader, of which over 300,000 copies have been sold. It is the flagship of a Bennis canon that has been translated into Spanish, German, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Taiwanese, Thai, Swedish, Dutch and other languages. Few contemporary books have any shelf life whatsoever; and only an infinitesimal fraction become the classics the way On Becoming a Leader has. Warren’s words are still of great value and are still widely read many years after they first appeared in print, as they will continue to be for decades to come.

HOWEVER, HIS MOST ENDURING contribution to the world may be as a coach of other people. Consistent with his philosophy, he draws out the best ideas and gifts of others – students, colleagues and leaders in various realms – and helps mold and shape those ideas. He has taught me much about the history and practice of leadership and has helped me find and articulate my own ideas about this subject. Moreover, his coaching has made me a better leader of this university.
At a recent USC Marshall School of Business symposium honoring Warren, I was struck by the number of dignitaries from around the world who had cleared their schedules to come to Los Angeles to pay tribute to him. It reminded me that there are persons whom we honor because they are important, and there are persons who we honor because we’re grateful for the way they have touched our lives. But Warren Bennis is both – a very important person who has profoundly enriched the lives of thousands of men and women around the world.

-Steven B. Sample

Steven B. Sample is the 10th president of the University of Southern California and the university’s first holder of the Robert C. Packard President’s Chair.

Sample (left) with Warren Bennis: “I’ve never encountered a person who is a better listener – who has that rare ability to make you feel as though you were the only person in the world.”

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