Over the course of the past few weeks, we've heard about the tragic losses of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. These events overshadowed the passing of another great thinker who globally shaped the leaders to their learning organizations, Warren Bennis. As an author of over 30 books, Bennis defined how people become leaders, how they lead, and how organizations respond to leadership. After studying leadership for six decades, Warren advanced the empirical and theoretical foundation of leadership and set the course for future leadership studies.
Back in graduate school, I developed a group problem solving model for my thesis and read and integrated many of the concepts of Bennis. I was particularly fascinated by his concept surrounding the Transformative Leadership approach and how leadership is grounded in a relationship. In order for the concept of leadership effectiveness to occur, you must have three things: a leader or leaders, a common achievable goal and the followers who believe in the mission. A leader, in order to invent themselves and have others to follow, must have the right combination of experience, self-knowledge, and personal ethics. In my thesis research, I found a correlation that if a problem solving model was to be utilized, leadership and the strength of the leader, goal, and followers was integral to a successful implementation. If a follower believed in a meaningful task as instructed by the leader, the objective would be achieved quicker and with a higher quality of results as opposed to a leader who described the task with less stringent guidelines and parameters. This research aligned closely with the concepts behind the path–goal theory of leader effectiveness.
About a year after I graduated, I worked for a company that built software to create interactive streaming media solutions. Our organization was contracted by the MIT Sloan School of Management to conduct a video shoot and build an interactive presentation to engage alumni. Jay Forrester, Arnoldo Hax, Glenn Urban, Ken Morse, Edgar Schein, and Warren Bennis were some of the presenters in attendance over the course of the day. I had just spent the past 5 years digging through multiple libraries across the United States to read their journal articles and other works. For myself, it was a thrilling moment to meet the minds behind the words.
One of the works I found fascinating by Bennis was a book called “Leaders: Strategies for Taking Change,” which offers insight on the qualities of various U.S. leaders. Through the research Bennis conducted, he found key attributes that successful leaders possessed, such as the management of attention, meaning, trust, and self.
Attention through Vision Each leader possessed a vision that could be translated into action and sustained. They must be able to engage their followers with their message. As seen with many political campaigns, through vision and beliefs, followers believe in the goals and mission and treat them as if they were their own.
Meaning through Communication Leaders know what they want and how to communicate it in order to gain support. The leaders Bennis observed possessed the ability to effectively communicate and demonstrate the ability to leverage metaphors, analogies, illustrations to build self-knowledge, trust, optimism, hope, and emotion toward the goals and mission.
Trust through Positioning Bennis also found that amongst successful leaders a consistency of trust was a key element that served as a binding agreement between a leader and follower. Each leader must have a set of morals and principles that will guide their followers and make critical decisions.
Management of Self Self-management was a common trait amongst leaders. The leaders that Bennis analyzed focused on sustaining lifelong learning and building their knowledge, skills, and abilities to wield success. Learning from adversity, builds the mind and challenges an individual to take calculated risks while committing to challenges.
Through the research Bennis conducted, he also found that a leader is a pragmatic dreamer with an achievable and attainable goal. Each follower involved in that dream must buy into the concept and provide a genuine contribution to the effort. Collectively, in order to problem solve to achieve the goal, they must be able to achieve the autonomy and become independent in order to successfully achieve their work. Leadership is open for all to attain and the best leaders turn followers into leaders.
If alive today, Bennis surely would have surely analyzed the dynamics behind emerging leaders within the Market Basket Story where Arthur T. Demoulas was ousted by a board controlled by his cousin and chief rival, Arthur S. Demoulas. In turn, Steve Paulenka, the former Market Basket facilities supervisor, organized a protest against Market Basket in support of bringing back the former CEO Arthur T. Leaders emerged through Demoulas strong belief in his message, leadership and support of his followers. In turn, his followers became the leaders supporting the goal and mission that Arthur T. believed in. Through the tenacious efforts of Market Basket employees and the thousands of customers who supported them, the mass followers supported the beliefs and the goal was achieved.
Leaders in the future will need to have the capabilities of strong emotional intelligence and cognitive abilities to leverage multiple points of view. Adaptive capacity and the ability to be resilient and creative, leading to new solutions, will be critical considering the influx of digital influence and information acquisition.
In the words of Bennis, “Leadership is not so much the exercise of power as the empowerment of others. Leaders lead by pulling rather than by pushing; by creating achievable, challenging expectations and rewarding progress toward them, rather than by manipulating; by enabling people to use their own initiative.”
NTI recently instituted a tuition reimbursement program to help to give back to our employees who want to strive to learn more and integrate it back into their own lives. Like Bennis, I’m a strong advocate of applied learning. Some of our young managers and front-line employees have been taking courses on Managing Change, Leadership, and Learning and Development. For those who are willing to take the challenge, I meet with them to discuss their class, their assignments, projects, and lectures to see how we can integrate the methodologies into our population of in-house and remote employees. The belief is to support their knowledge, career, and become industry experts while helping out the organization and the people within it. The goal is to build a leader, not a better manager or boss.
Even though Bennis has passed on, his concepts, beliefs and research have extended through the writings and actions of MacGregor, Edgar Schein, Jack Welch, Barbara Kellerman, Chris Turner, Jean Lipman-Blumen, John Kotter, Rudy Giuliani, Paul Stoltz as well as you and I. Leadership is a skill that can be developed by ordinary people, and through my management practices, I hope to empower others in hope that they apply it in their everyday world.
As an end note, I pose a few questions. From a global perspective, what do you see are the major common trends that are affecting your leadership abilities, ability to gain followers or the building of a common goal? Any ideas on how to build leaders when facing these issues?
Bennis, Warren, and Nanus, Burt. Leaders: Strategies for Taking Change. 2nd ed. New York: Collins, 2003.
Mike Sanders is the Senior Director of Talent Management Services for NTI where he oversees the Training, Call Center, and Recruiting departments. In the past, Mike was the Manager of Training for Canon North America, worked for a few Financial Firms, and has built Interactive media, Websites and Learning Management Systems for several Fortune 500 firms and start-ups.