Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Book Review: On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis

Genre: Leadership, Non-fiction, Business

On Friday, I finished reading Warren Bennis� book On Becoming a Leader. It follows on the heels of some of his other works on leadership (a category he is often credited with creating) but I found the work disappointing in a lot of ways.

Initially, I was turned off by his obvious liberal humanism. For example, Bennis quotes Sonya Freidman on the rising occurrence (in 1989) of women in leadership at corporations, �The truth of the matter is that most emotionally disturbed women are those who are married and into traditional, full time, lifetime homemaker roles. Single women have always been happier than married women. Always. And there isn�t as study that has disproved that.� Say what? What does that have to do with leadership? How is that helpful to women who are in leadership roles? How is bashing housewives relevant to female leaders? This was simple propaganda, and Bennis should have known better.

Or take for example that fact that the majority of the non-profit leaders he interviewed (informally) are for liberal organizations? Or how, after a very nice section on the leadership of Ronald Reagan, Bennis ends with, �Carter depressed us; Reagan, whatever his other flaws, gave us hope.� Is that really a ringing endorsement of Reagan�s leadership? I don�t think so. Reagan did have flaws, but was it necessary to say so in the concluding sentence? I think not.

All right, so I don�t like the liberal humanism of the book. It�s now time to look more closely at the book�s content. Since Bennis is obviously a humanist, much of the book claims that becoming a leader is a process of self-actualization through education, vision, excellence, virtue (a very nebulous term in the book, since it is rooted in the self) and other elements that one can find in a good manager as well. I nearly fell for the spell as well, because I found as I was reading the book I started thinking that I could better myself and become a leader. That�s not wholly a bad thing, but I find it hard to think that I can really be a good leader when I have no absolutes by which to gauge myself.

Bennis� theme is simply that by expressing yourself, staying outside the box of the good manager, and being innovative and creative that a person will become a good leader. Perhaps that is true. But where does that creativity come from really? Bennis would say it comes from finding yourself, which is really just psychological claptrap backed by �research� and Bennis� reputation.

I do not recommend reading this book, if you feel that you can appeal to a higher power who gives you absolutes to live by. Doing so will make you just as much of a leader as �expressing yourself�. Bennis ultimately when you dig deep, is arguing that the leader is someone who seeks selfish gain (although he would deny this) through a process of learning yourself and learning all you can. Learning is a good thing, being a leader is a good thing, but it is altruism and selflessness that will ultimately create a good leader.

On Becoming a Leader is interesting and has some good thoughts from Bennis and leaders in various business fields, but it all must be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, you should learn more, yes you should believe in people and teamwork, yes you should have vision and virtue, but these things cannot come wholly from within, or wholly from without.

Comments are closed.