There are a thousand books on leaders and leadership. Perhaps there are a million. I read a few and grew averse to reading books on leadership. The books I read before [and grew averse to] explained the author’s leadership theory. They somehow failed to impress me as I felt that there was something missing. The leadership books rarely gave an insightful account of development of a leader.
When I read references to Warren Bennis in an article on leadership I looked up Amazon, and I hesitantly bought his classic ‘On Becoming a Leader.’
I confess buying it because it cost me a few rupees more than a hundred. This is not a new book, it was originally published in 2003. I say all this with a sense of embarrassment, for I have realised, yet again, that bias prevents you from reading classics. Now that I have read ‘On Becoming a Leader’, let me tell you that if I had not read it I would have missed a classic on the subject of leadership.
Warren Bennis passed away in 2014, but not before making substantial contribution to the field of organisational behaviour. He was a protégé of Douglas McGregor, the man who wrote about Theory X and Y.
Bennis tells us that “’On becoming a Leader’ is based on the assumption that leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully. By this I mean that they know who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to fully deploy their strengths and compensate for weaknesses.”
What are the means of expression? Those are the steps to leadership. Given here are those steps:
- Reflection leading to resolution
- Resolution leading to perspective
- Perspective leading to point of view
- Point of view leading to test and measures
- Tests and measures leading to desire
- Desire leading to mastery
- Mastery leading to strategic thinking
- Strategic thinking leading to full self-expression
- The synthesis of self-expression = leadership
Bennis says that ‘true reflection inspires, informs, and ultimately demands resolution.’ He relies on Erik Erikson’s theory of conflicts which people must resolve in their development. Based on Erikson’s model, Bennis reframes the conflicts and their resolution, and says that the way we resolve them determines the how we will live. For example hope resolves the conflict of blind trust and suspicion; autonomy resolves the conflict of independence and dependence. That the resolution of conflicts leads to building perspective because people transform their experience into ideas and they put those ideas in action.
The nomenclature ‘Tests and Measures’ might mislead the reader. So let me reproduce the four tests:
- The first test is knowing what you want, knowing your abilities and capacities, and recognising the difference between the two.
- The second test is knowing what drives you, what gives you satisfaction and knowing the difference between the two.
- The third rest is knowing what your values and priorities are, knowing what values and priorities of your organisation are, and measuring the difference between the two.
- The fourth test is – having measured the differences between what you want and what you are able to do, and between what drives you and what satisfies you, and between what your values are and what the organisation’s values are – are you able and willing to overcome those differences?
With these inputs, Bennis’ view of developing leadership should be clear. Lucidity and simplicity marks Bennis’ writing. The book is replete with very short stories, which makes understanding his arguments easy.
Where the book stands out is that the reader can relate easily to his experience of developing as a leader, if not his observations of seeing others develop as leaders. In that way it also provides a road map for one’s development as a leader.
I would recommend this book to everybody. After all, as Gloria Anderson puts it, “You can’t make being a leader your principal goal, any more than you can make being happy your goal. In both cases, it has to be the result, not the cause.”
Vivek S Patwardhan