With the recent passing of Warren G. Bennis, the field of Leadership Studies has been deprived of a veritable intellectual, genial colossus. Here, at the Connective Leadership Institute, we have lost a key and beloved member of our Sounding Board, as well as a long-time personal friend and colleague. Bennis, University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, was a “force of nature” in the fields of Leadership Studies and management. Both in person and in writing, Warren emanated erudition, eloquence, and elegance, easily quoting the perfect passage from Plato, Shakespeare, or Beckett to make his point more apt.
Warren was a major figure, indeed, one of the true founders of the field of Leadership Studies. It was primarily Warren’s engaging writing and profound insights that brought attention to the importance of leadership in business, particularly in his iconic book “On Becoming a Leader,” one of more than thirty volumes he wrote or edited, alone and with others, during his lifetime. His insistence that leaders “were made, not born” encouraged institutions of higher learning to introduce Leadership Studies. It also prompted individuals in corporate, political, and academic life to study and practice becoming better leaders. His refreshing view of leaders as visionary, ethical, compassionate, savvy, courageous, passionate, and endlessly curious flatly contradicted the portrait of Machiavelli’s Prince.”
Warren’s wisdom on leadership made American presidents from John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, to Ronald Reagan, as well as numerous corporate heads, call upon him for counsel. Warren wore his eminence lightly and graciously. We saw this in the way he made himself genuinely available not only to us, at the Connective Leadership Institute, but to his multitudinous students, numerous colleagues, and long-distance admirers from many different fields seeking his advice and wisdom. He was generous and genuine in every respect and in every encounter.
In addition to theorizing and writing about leadership, Warren put his shoulder to the leadership role, particularly when he served for seven years as president of the University of Cincinnati and, before that, for four years, as provost and executive vice president of the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo). Yet, his passion was teaching, and, when asked what he considered his primary identity, Warren quickly responded, “teacher.”
Not surprising, then, that Warren returned to a professorial role for the remainder of his life. In addition to his regular teaching duties at USC, Bennis also offered occasional courses at Harvard and the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. In his earlier years, he had taught at Boston University. Warren served on numerous boards, including those of Claremont Graduate University, The American Leadership Forum, The American Chamber of Commerce, the Salk Institute, as well as the Connective Leadership Institute.
By dint of his writing and personal gifts, Warren cast a very large net. Into that net, he drew together students, colleagues, friends, family, and admirers, whose own work was enriched by their intellectual and personal relationship with this approachable and humorous mentor and friend. He infused others with his own immense energy, enthusiasm, and effervescence. At his recent memorial service at the University of California, speaker after speaker commented upon Warren’s capacity to renew their sagging spirits, to refresh their worn visions. Here at CLI, he was always available to discuss whatever contribution issues we were confronting.
Throughout his life, Warren received many awards and tributes, from military to academic. As a 19-year-old Infantry Commander in Germany, he received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Eighteen universities conferred honorary degrees upon him, as well. In 2010, the University of Southern California awarded him its highest accolade, the USC Presidential Medallion, for bringing “honor and distinction” to USC. In 2008, The International Leadership Association bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on Warren for his legacy “contribution to the development of the field of leadership.”
Warren Bennis lives on through the students whom he taught and mentored, the corporate, political, and academic leaders whom he advised, the family and friends he loved and nourished, as well as his profound and voluminous writings. His spirit continues to infuse the work we do at the Connective Leadership Institute. We refuse to say, “Goodbye.”