The Book: Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership by Warren Bennis with Patricia Ward Biederman, Jossey-Bass, Hardcover, August 2010.
When you look at the greatest business thinkers from the second half of the last century, Warren Bennis would have to be in the conversation. When you focus on the field of leadership, he would have to be on the top of that list. In the past fifty-plus years, Bennis has written some of the seminal books on leadership. We included On Becoming a Leader in The 100 Best Business Books of All Time because, as we said in the book, "Bennis treats leadership with a certain gravitas that is perspective changing."
Now, after writing twenty-seven books on business thought, he tells us his leadership story. It begins when, as a 19-year-old second lieutenant, he commanded a platoon during the final days of the Second World War in Europe and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. It was his first real lesson in leadership:
I had been changed and enriched by the advance course in leadership the war had thrust on me. It is no accident that the war produced so many authentic leaders in the second half of the 20th century. Nobody who has to make choices that result in the deaths of others takes leadership lightly.
He then used the G.I. Bill to go to college at Antioch, a small "free-thinking institution that championed both learning and social justice" in Ohio where he met Douglas McGregor, who would become his early mentor. He went on to do his graduate work at MIT. These two experiences in higher education would transform his life:
One of the first and most critical things those two institutions did for me was radically alter my definition of work.... Work—paid work at that—could be the activity of an engaged mind or a group of minds collaborating to solve a worthy problem.
So inspired, he has spent the rest of his life in higher learning. As he recounts his journey, we meet an incredible group of people—like Nobel Prize winner Paul Samuelsson, counter-culture guru Werner Erhard and writer Norman Mailer. We also find out how Bennis developed his beliefs surrounding team-focused leadership instead of the hierarchical leadership model. All of this along with the tale of a life well lived. There are no new theories here, just great stories. But, like all of Warren Bennis's books, it finds the heart of leadership.
Reviewer Jack Covert is the founder of 800-CEO-READ, a leading bookseller to corporations and large organizations, based in Milwaukee.