Book Review: On Becoming a Leader

A friend gave me On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis which I finished on the plane at 3:00 AM (what – you expect a 6′ 4″ guy like myself to sleep in coach?). While it’s dated and I wouldn’t place it in the canon of leadership classics, there were a couple chapters which really resonated with me.

The first was “Knowing Yourself,” which started with a quote from William James: “I have often thought that the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensively active and alive. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘This is the real me.'” Bennis writes, “Knowing thyself means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be.

He says true understanding comes from reflecting on your experience (see my post on reflection): “Reflecting on experience is a means of having a Socratic dialogue with yourself, asking the right questions at the right time, in order to discover the truth of yourself and your life. What really happened? Why did it happen? What did it do to me? What did it mean to me? In this way, one locates and appropriates the knowledge one needs or, more precisely, recovers what one knew but had forgotten, and becomes, in Goethe’s phrase, the hammer rather than the anvil.”

In “Knowing the World,” Bennis uses strong prose to communicate a number of great thoughts that I can’t re-type but basically he breaks down learning into different categories. He says, “Innovative learning requires that you trust yoursel, that you be self-directed rather than other-directed in both your life and your work. If you learn to anticipate the future and shape events rather than being shaped by them you will benefit in significant ways.” He then bashes the traditional schooling approach – which was great fun – and then touts the life of the mind and the fruits of reading: “Jamie Raskin warns against letting your ambition get in the way of your intellectual growth: ‘Ambition is the death of thought. A number of my friends are as ambitious as I am, but they suppress any thoughts that might be subversive or dangerous to their ambitions. Your intellectual life is really the ability to see how things can be different, and big insitutations in society, whether public or private, often ask people to toe the line in any number of ways – personal, political, ideological. And clearly one can get ahead by doing that. I guess the only way to prevent ambition from killing your intellectual life is not to be afraid of losing, or to say something people might think is wrong, or crazy, something the institution isn’t ready to hear yet…If you want a concrete tip, learn how to speed read. People say they don’t have time to read. My feeling is, When in doubt, read it. I can read a book in a couple hours.”

In “Express Yourself,” Bennis writes: “If your primary goal is to fully express yourself, you will find the means to achieve the rest of your goals – given your abilities and capacities, along with your interests and biases. On the other hand, if your primary aim is to prove yourself, you’ll run into trouble sooner or later. The man who follows his father into law or medicine in order to prove himself, or the woman who decides to be a stockbroker to show that she can make a lot of money, is playing the fool’s game and will inevitably fail or be unhappy.”

1 comment on “Book Review: On Becoming a Leader
  • I like that part about expressing yourself, rather than proving yourself. Many men, including myself at this point in my life, feel like they have to prove themselves. Whether that is through monetary, career success, etc. Not many of us have said, “I want to express myself.”

    But perhaps, through fully expressing ourselves, we prove ourselves in ways greater than we imagined. Hmm…

    Good food for thought. Thanks, Ben.

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