Note: The review that follows is of the fourth ("Twentieth Anniversary") edition that was published on March 2, 2009.
Where have the 20 years gone since this book was first published? It remains among the most valuable and most influential primary sources on the subject of effective leadership at a time when the need for it has never been greater. However, although the core principles and the development of them that Warren Bennis examines in this book remain essentially the same, the perils and opportunities to which those principles can be applied throughout the global business world have increased in number as well as changed in nature since 1989. That is why Bennis felt the need to revise and update the material while adding an Epilogue.
Previously, I read the first and third editions of this book and each time was reminded of a situation years ago when participants were outraged about the playing conditions on the course (perhaps Shinnicock) on which the U.S. Open golf championship was once held. The greens were too fast, the rough was too high and deep, the pin placements were "impossible," etc. After a U.S. Golf Association official was informed of the criticism, he explained that "we're not trying to embarrass the world's greatest golfers, we're trying to identify them." Bennis seems to be making the same point about how great leaders are developed. More specifically, as he and Robert Thomas assert in Geeks & Geezers (2002), there are "crucibles" from which some emerge as leaders but most others do not. They developed a theory that describes, they believe for the first time, how leaders come to be. "We believe that we have identified the process that allows an individual to undergo testing and to emerge, not just stronger, but better equipped with the tools he or she needs both to lead and to learn. It is a model that explains how individuals make meaning out of difficult events -- we call them crucibles [in italics] -- and how that process of 'meaning making' both galvanizes individuals and gives them their distinctive voice." They cite and then discuss a number of individuals who underwent that process and, as a result, eventually became highly-effective leaders. Bennis and Thomas conclude their book with an especially apt quotation from Edith Wharton: "In spite of illness, in spite even of the arch enemy, sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual state of integration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways." These are indeed words to live and grow by for both Geeks and Geezers.
Those who aspire to become leaders - or to become more effective leaders - will find much of value in this latest edition even as some readers will question Bennis' selection of at least a few of the exemplary leaders such as Herb Alpert, Norman Lear, and Sydney Pollack. However, my own opinion is that effective leaders can - and should - be developed at all levels and in all areas, not only within an organization but indeed throughout an entire society. I do agree with other reviewers that some of Bennis' social commentary indicates a political bias that is irrelevant to his stated objectives. Granted, Harry Truman once described politics as "the art of getting things done" and great leaders are certainly results-driven pragmatists. In that sense, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela (to name but a few) were master politicians. That said, each demonstrated most (if not all) of the qualities that Bennis admires, notably a compelling ("guiding") vision, a passion for excellence, and impeccable integrity. None of those qualities is political in nature. However, all of the aforementioned leaders considered them essential to achieving political objectives.
In the Epilogue, Bennis recalls an incident that occurred in 1945. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had recently died and "crowded, grieving masses surged along Constitution Avenue in April 1945, waiting for his funeral cortege to pass by. As his hearse neared, a well-dressed, middle-aged man standing in the throng fell to his knees, sobbing desperately until finally regaining his composure. A stranger by his side asked, `Did you know the President?' The man could barely reply. `No . . . but he knew me.'" What's Bennis' point? To become a great leader, you must "know" those whom you ask to follow you. Agreeing with Abigail Adams that "great necessities call forth great leaders," Bennis notes that with the inauguration of a new U.S. president in 2009, "it is easy to forget that we need more than one gifted leader at a time. At the founding of the United States, when our population was less than 4 million, we had six towering leaders: Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, and Adams. Now that we number more than 304 million people, we are surely capable of yielding at least 600 world-class leaders in this country alone."
When concluding the Epilogue with a question, "Will you be one of them?" Warren Bennis offers both an invitation and a challenge, and he does so at a time when the need for more and more effective leaders was never greater.