Warren Bennis biography, leadership and books

Warren Bennis - Toolshero

Warren Bennis (Warren Gamaliel Bennis: 1925 – 2014), was an American scientist, organizational consultant, leadership expert, author, and pioneer of contemporary leadership studies. He was best known for his contributions to researching the problems of different types of leadership. Warren Bennis has also served as an adviser to four US presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. His books on leadership have been published in many countries worldwide. He was a professor at the University of California and president of the Leadership Institute at the same university. This article covers his biography, quotes and publications.

Who is Warren Bennis? His biography

Early life

Warren Bennis was born on March 8, 1925, in The Bronx, New York. He grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Westwood. In 1943 he joined the United States Army. He would become the youngest infantry officer in the military and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

The Founder of Leadership

After military service, Warren Bennis entered Antioch College in 1947, where he received his BA four years later. In 1952 Warren Bennis received an Honors Certificate from the London School of Economics and a Hicks Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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The school’s president, Douglas McGregor (founder of democratic management philosophy), would take on Bennis as a protégé. This scientific relationship would pay off, as it turned out later when both became professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Bennis obtained his doctorate in 1955, majoring in Economics and Social Sciences. He would also hold the position of chairman of the organizational sciences department.

Professional career of Warren Bennis

In 1967 Warren Bennis made the transition from theory to practice in the field of management. He became a provost of the State University of New York and president of the University of Cincinnati. During this period, he wrote two books: Presidency: The Leaning Ivory Tower and The Unconscious Conspiracy: Why Leaders Can’t Lead.

Popular books on Leadership

However, after a heart attack in 1979, he decided to return to the life he had before. He joined the faculty of the University of California to do so. Here he wrote most of his well-known 27 books, including the bestsellers Leaders, On Becoming a Leader, and An Invented Life.

These books have been translated and sold in at least 21 languages. An Invented Life was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

United States Presidential Advisor

Warren Bennis spent the next few decades as an advisor to four United States presidents and other important public figures. He has also advised numerous Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his advisory role, Bennis has also taught at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIM-C), INSEAD and IMD.

He was also the chairman of the advisory board of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. The remainder of his time was spent as a visiting professor at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and as a Senior Fellow at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research.

Personal life Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis’ life was not always easy and had many ups and downs. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1962. Nearly three decades later, he married his high school sweetheart, psychiatrist Grace Gabe.

In the 1970s, he was president of the University of Cincinnati. They were turbulent years, he said, and Warren Bennis realized that he was not enjoying the presidency. For his book True North he gave a long interview, in which he explained why he had made the decision to stop.

He said:“I realized my personal truth. I could never be happy with positional strength. What I really wanted was personal power. Influence based on my voice. My real gift is what I can do in the classroom or as a mentor.”

Heart problems

After being diagnosed with heart disease in 1979, Warren had a Medtronic defibrillator implanted several decades later.

He was invited as a guest patient to the annual Medtronic event, where he thanked the employees who designed and manufactured his defibrillator. In his speech, he said he had “closed Medtronic to his heart” and described how he had been able to get his life back on track thanks to the tool.

His life was saved about six times by the device. He once collapsed during a speech after which he dropped his papers on the floor. He picked up the papers, apologized, and continued his speech. When the defibrillator had to do its job for the second time in 10 minutes, the Cambridge Fire Department pulled him off the stage and brought the man to safety.

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Famous quotes

  • “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”
  • “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.”
  • “Too many companies believe people are interchangeable. Truly gifted people never are. They have unique talents. Such people cannot be forced into roles they are not suited for, nor should they be. Effective leaders allow great people to do the work they were born to do.”
  • “Taking charge of your own learning is a part of taking charge of your life, which is the sine qua non in becoming an integrated person.”
  • “It is the capacity to develop and improve their skills that distinguishes leaders from followers.”
  • “Great Groups need to know that the person at the top will fight like a tiger for them.”
  • “…once you recognize, or admit, that your primary goal is to fully express yourself, you will find the means to achieve the rest of your goals…”
  • “Leaders are people who believe so passionately that they can seduce other people into sharing their dream.”
  • “The opposite of hope is despair, and when we despair, it is because we feel there are no choices.”
  • “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”
  • “Silence – not dissent – is the one answer that leaders should refuse to accept.”
  • “More leaders have been made by accident, circumstance, sheer grit, or will than have been made by all the leadership courses put together.”

Books and publications by Warren Bennis et al.

  • 2020. Crucibles of leadership. Harvard business review, 80.
  • 2017. Beyond bureaucracy (pp. 3-16). Routledge.
  • 2010. Learning to lead: A workbook on becoming a leader. Basic Books.
  • 2008. Transparency: How leaders create a culture of candor. John Wiley & Sons.
  • 2007. The challenges of leadership in the modern world: Introduction to the special issue. American psychologist, 62(1), 2.
  • 2007. Up the organization: How to stop the corporation from stifling people and strangling profits (Vol. 144). John Wiley & Sons.
  • 2007. Organizing genius: The secrets of creative collaboration. Basic Books.
  • 2005. How business schools have lost their way. Harvard business review, 83(5), 96-104.
  • 2003. The contrarian’s guide to leadership (Vol. 14). John Wiley & Sons.
  • 2002. Geeks and geezers: how era, values, and defining moments shape leaders-how tough times shape good leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School.
  • 2001. Leading in unnerving times. MIT Sloan Management Review, 42(2), 97.
  • 2000. Don’t hire the wrong CEO. Harvard Business Review, 78(3), 170-170.
  • 1999. Inclusion, initiatives, and cooperation of followers. Organizational Dynamics, 27(i1), 71.
  • 1993. The unreality industry: The deliberate manufacturing of falsehood and what it is doing to our lives. Oxford University Press on Demand.
  • 1990. Democracy is inevitable. Harvard Business Review, 68(5), 167-176.
  • 1989. On becoming a leader (Vol. 36). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • 1989. Why leaders can’t lead (pp. 118-120). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • 1989. Managing the dream: Leadership in the 21st century. Journal of organizational change management.
  • 1969. Organization development: Its nature, origins, and prospects.
  • 1968. Interpersonal Dynamics; Essays and Readings on Human Interaction.
  • 1967. The coming death of bureaucracy. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 9(7), 380.
  • 1966. Changing organizations. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 2(3), 247-263.
  • 1966. Organizational developments and the fate of bureaucracy. IMR; Industrial Management Review (pre-1986), 7(2), 41.
  • 1965. Theory and method in applying behavioral science to planned organizational change. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 1(4), 337-360.
  • 1963. A new role for the behavioral sciences: Effecting organizational change. Administrative science quarterly, 125-165.
  • 1962. Towards a” Truly” scientific management: The Concept of organization Health. Industrial Management Review (pre-1986), 4(1), 1.
  • 1961. The planning of change: Readings in the applied behavioral sciences.
  • 1959. Leadership theory and administrative behavior: The problem of authority. Administrative science quarterly, 259-301.
  • 1956. A theory of group development. Human relations, 9(4), 415-437.

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Original publication date: 11/25/2021 | Last update: 06/05/2024

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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