How Era and Values Shape Our Leaders

Leadership guru Warren Bennis and strategic change expert Robert Thomas teamed up to discover how era and values have shaped modern leadership. In Geeks and Geezers, the authors focus on our oldest leaders, who were raised during the Depression and World War II, and our youngest leaders, who grew up in the glow of computer screens.

The group of geezers is made up of leaders who are over 70 years of age. Leaders from the group of geeks are under 35. Bennis and Thomas use the colorful information they cull from many interviews with leaders from both groups to illustrate a new model of leadership that predicts who might become a leader, what factors lead to success, and who will remain on top.

After a short synopsis of the issues and complexity of leadership and the importance of life-long learning, the authors delve into their new model for leadership development, which centers on "crucibles." These are the transformational experiences that either shape individuals into leaders or crush them into oblivion.

The elements that enter a person's crucible are individual factors and the era in which the crucible occurs. These factors combine with experiences and an organization of meaning to produce leadership competencies.

A Look at Our Great Geezers

The geezers are the first leaders they explore. Common factors between geezers, such as journalist Mike Wallace, Visa International's Dee Hock and even Bennis himself, include the difficulties of growing up in the Depression and watching parents struggle for the basic essentials of life.

Military service was also a common experience of many leaders from that era, as seen in the recollections of people like Ed Guthman, an aide to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy who later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and newspaper editor. "[O]ne of the things about the Kennedy administration which was unique in a sense, almost everybody had been in combat," he said. "And I think that had a real effect on that administration ? in an organizing sense. We had that ability to do things rather quickly. And I think it was our military experience that made the difference."

The authors write that the geezers who got ahead exhibit hard work, dedication, ambition, native ability and intelligence. The geezers treat experience as a symbol of achievement and a sign of commitment. In contrast, the authors write that the geeks who were interviewed "often strain to grab the brass ring on their first pass rather than waiting a few laps to get comfortable in the saddle. Their impatience is palpable."

For example, 29-year-old Internet-company CEO Michael Klein started his career with the priority of achieving personal wealth, and was able to accumulate nearly $20 million in real estate by the time he was 19. Whereas it was unfashionable for those from an earlier generation to quest for such extreme personal wealth, geeks were pushed from early in their lives by parents, television, current events and the Internet to achieve goals and wealth quickly.

The Dividing Lines

In an era when corporations are less loyal to workers than before, geeks learned early that they would have to make decisions with this in mind. Other factors that divide geeks from geezers are the importance with which they regard a balance between work and personal life, a lack of heroes, and the amount of the world they saw through the media at an early age.

At the root of the authors' discoveries about leadership are the experiences they call "crucibles."

However, they note that true leaders of any age share critical qualities beyond the capacity to embrace and learn from their crucibles. These qualities include adaptive capacity, the ability to engage others through shared meaning, voice, integrity and "neoteny," which is a youthful curiosity and zest for knowledge.

Why We Like This Book

Geeks & Geezers is not just about leadership development, although it provides some wonderful and exciting insights into this field. It is also about human development and the issues and experiences that shape us all. By examining many successful leaders and the facets of their lives that have given them the power to move beyond their boundaries while reshaping themselves and others, Bennis and Thomas provide valuable knowledge we can all use. The lessons they have formulated offer people from any era new light from which they can view themselves and find new ways to reach their goals.

Copyright © 2002 Soundview Executive Book Summaries