Peter Drucker was often called the father of modern management thinking. Warren Bennis has been described as the father of leadership. I’ve long been a reader of Warren‘s books on leadership, change, and team/organization dynamics. I’ve often quoted his study findings and leadership wisdom in my books, blog, and presentations. When he said my book, The Leader’s Digest, “illuminates the topic of leadership in a useful, readable and lively way,” I quoted him even more!

Warren Bennis - Still SurprisedWarren has a long and very distinguished career. His book, Leaders (the first book of his I read and cited) was named as one of the top 50 business books of all time by the Financial Times. An Invented Life was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. On Becoming a Leader “is widely considered the top leadership book.” Business Week named him one of the ten most influential thought leaders.

In Still Surprised (written with Patricia Ward Biederman), Warren opens up his life for all of us to learn from his extensive experience. The book starts with him being thrust into leadership “in December 1944 as the rawest second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, a 19-year-old shavetail trying to keep my platoon (and myself) alive as we pursued the retreating army into Germany.” He went on to earn a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Each chapter of Still Surprised centers around major phases of Warren’s life and what shaped his thinking. We learn about his decision to attend Antioch College on the G.I. Bill. The next year (1948) Douglas McGregor (best remembered for The Human Side of Enterprise and its description of leadership approaches Theory X and Theory Y) became Antioch’s president. This began a close mentoring relationship until McGregor’s early and sudden death in 1964.

Still Surprised goes on to explain Warren’s move to Cambridge, MA and his scholastic work at MIT that led to a Ph.D. in economics and social sciences. The sections I found especially interesting involved his social sciences experiments and work with group dynamics to bring about change. My old Achieve Group partner, Art McNeil, and I worked briefly with Eric Trist and Ron Lippitt in the early eighties when they were in the twilight of their illustrious careers with the UK’s Tavistock Institute and National Training Laboratories for Group Dynamics in Bethel, MA (“summer camp for some of the best social scientists in the world”.)

I didn’t know of Warren’s pioneering involvement with those organizations and his work with NTL founder, Kurt Levin, and Abraham Maslow (famous for his Hierarchy of Human Needs.) This work added a much deeper understanding of the value of groups examining how they function together — their dynamics — as a key element in increasing their effectiveness.

There’s much more about Warren’s move to Lausanne, Switzerland and work with Europe’s Institute for Management Development, provost at SUNY-Buffalo during the turbulent student revolutions of the sixties, and president of the University of Cincinnati. In these fascinating chapters, Warren models leadership transparency by openly sharing the high and low points of his personal and professional life that brought him huge stress, high growth, and deep insights. He also chronicles the near impossible demands of leadership, herding the very independent cats of academics and students.

After losing his job at the University of Cincinnati, Warren had a heart attack and spent months in the UK under the care of Charles and Elizabeth Handy (Charles is co-founder of the London School of Business and another outstanding leadership author I’ve followed for years.) With his 17 year marriage ended, Warren spent “a year at sea (the title of Chapter Seven)” living on a houseboat in Sausalito, CA figuring out what to do next. Then at age 55, hired as a professor of business administration and chair of the Leadership Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, he began three decades of what he feels have been the most productive and happiest of his life. He went on to write a string of bestselling and landmark books drawing from and adding to the themes: “the nature of leadership, the importance of creative collaboration, how organizations and other groups work, how to effect change, the need to reinvent oneself periodically, and how to create cultures of candor.”

Still Surprised is a very insightful and inspiring book for leadership/organization development geeks like me. If you’re familiar with Warren’s work, it fills in much background to his thinking and provides historical context to these fields. The very personal and open narration of his life journey lays out universal lessons for all of us to reflect upon and learn from.

Further Reading – my next blog post provides leadership reflections excerpted from Still Surprised.