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Critical Review – On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis Essay

Everywhere you trip is where the treasure lies.

While looking for a book for my class assignment I bumped into tremendous amount of them talking about leadership. Why there are so many? Why has leadership received so much attention? Which one I have to pick? Why we study leadership at all? Isn’t it what coming with years of experience? Many people believe that a leader is an aggressive person who “inspires” others to work hard to accomplish important tasks. Then why those publications take a colossal part in the market of popular books? Is leadership a learned behavior? “On Becoming a Leader” by Warren Bennis is the book I picked, intrigued by the front cover announcement “The Leadership Classic”.

Warren Bennis’s approach in this book can be described as a “leadership by looking around”. He discusses the essence of leadership and how individuals become leaders by examining numbers of successful leaders. Presence of these examples is very helpful, because we can integrate those leadership qualities into our own lives. In the very beginning of his book Bennis said “leadership is like beauty: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it” . This statement is reflective throughout the book in those examples.

In the introductions – one written for the original publication and one a few years later – Bennis states his premises about leadership. He believes that everyone has the capacity for leadership . Why he wants us, his readers, to be so confident? He acknowledges that there are no rules and predictable patterns in leadership, but still encourages us to take risk, make mistakes, and express ourselves to become a successful leader. He firmly believes leaders are made, not born . Learning and developing abilities are more important that the ability one was born with.

Those who took risk, made mistakes, and reflected to own failure – understood, thus, learned from the experience, and become leaders. “On Becoming a Leader” is based on the assumption that leaders know who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses. Bennis’s position is that “becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself” . The statement seems very simple, but it is difficult indeed. What he really means is that no one can teach how to become ourselves, how to take charges, how to fully-express ourselves. Leaders are those who were able to accomplish those tasks.

In the first section of the book Bennis argues that a lack of leadership is one of the greatest dangers to society. He claims that America lost its way – “We forgot what we were here for.” Certainly, there are not enough leaders in organizations, but the world isn’t that bad. The world changes drastically. Most of the CEOs in America do not know how to use computers. Does it make them bad leaders? We always need competent leaders of any types and levels. Bennis’s leaders are those who adapt changes. Very critically Bennis claims that “after World War II, America was chiefly notable for its bureaucrats and managers, its organization men, its wheeler-dealers who remade, and in some cases unmade, the institutions and organizations of America, in both the public and private sectors . By this statement, Bennis encourages us to master the context , to take another look at what good leaders are.

Bennis sets three reasons why he believes leaders are important. First, leaders are responsible for organizational effectiveness. Second, in the world of constant changes, leaders must provide stability to an organization. Finally, leaders are the only ones to build integrity and trust within an organization. Nevertheless leadership is a complex process and most people fail to master the context. Bennis gives very interesting example of a leadership failure – “Ed”; he had fantastic management skills, but never really understood what it takes to be an effective leader.

Unfortunately, most of us tend to function on Ed’s level. He failed because he was not able to make people willing to follow him. Leaders like him lack most important qualities such passion, integrity, trust, curiosity, daring and guiding vision. Often, these qualities are subjected in stress, hard work, and adversity. “Ed” is a perfect image of a good manager, but not a leader. Bennis very clear define this difference – “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.”

In the next section of “On Becoming a Leader” Bennis describes the necessity of self-knowledge for future leaders. Norman Lear, producer, screenwriter and director, is frequently referenced by Bennis. Using his character, Bennis contends that self-knowledge is best achieved by the four lessons.

1. you are your own best teacher

2. accept responsibility

3. you can learn anything you want to learn

4. true understanding comes from reflecting on your experience

Explore these lessons to become a successful leader. Bennis also discusses the problem of diminishing cultural awareness and how it holds back the emergence of leadership. To become a true leader, one must know the world as well as know oneself. He explains the benefits of expanding the limits of our world by traveling to other countries and learning new cultures. We need to develop respect for diversity, and those who are inherently curious will become true leaders. Finally, Bennis talks about learning through adversity. What can be better than to be able to transform the experience into wisdom? Some of the best learning and creative, innovative ideas come from having to work through crisis. The more obstacles and deterrents you come across, the more you learn and the better you evolve into a more effective leader. However, not all can survive from failure, and very often physical boundaries stifle leadership capabilities.

Furthermore, Bennis compare leadership skills with the acquisition of good “people skills”. He argues that outstanding leaders are able to express concern and respect for fellows. It is not necessary to be a charismatic leader to inspire trust and loyalty in his/her followers. But how make someone to trust you? How to convict someone that following is the best thing to do at the time? Bennis claims that all this can not be taught, but it can be learned. Human sensitivity, tact, compassion, and diplomacy would make one a good leader.

More importantly, he supports it with examples of Barbara Corday and Herb Alpert , outstanding leaders exercise empathy when working with colleagues and other leaders. Regarding empathy, Bennis remarks – “I’ve known leaders who have had none of it and nevertheless were leaders, but those who have had that quality have moved and inspired me more” .┬áLeaders are the ones who support those whom they lead whether through the use of empathy or through other means. According to Bennis, only leaders who have these qualities can be expected to be America’s future leaders.

Finally, while Bennis stresses that all human beings have the ability to lead, his choice of “outstanding leaders” is quite selective. Rather than selecting leaders from various industries and even countries, Bennis choose high-ranking leaders in large corporate and governmental positions. Those are CEOs and presidents, lawyers, movie directors. It was hard to associate some fields such entertainment industry with traditional fields of leadership (i.e. military, sports). In his book, Bennis encourages us to travel, learn others cultures, but his list of “outstanding leaders” composed primarily of native born leaders from the United States . In addition, this endless list of characteristics and qualities presented throughout the book is absolutely overwhelming.

Even though, I believe this book should be at the top of the reading list in any serious study of leadership. The book is of value to a wide spectrum of people. Those who are currently at a leadership position will be inspired to be better leaders. Those who are “followers” will gain a better understanding of how crucial is their own role, as well as better understanding of what their own leaders are facing. I personally started to think that I can be a better person, leader in my own life. It does motivate and help to evaluate ourselves. I also feel that I will come back to this book and read it again to discover entirely new insights. Perhaps the reason that this book is simple and so adaptable is author’s belief that anyone can be a leader. Think about that: “it’s much easier to express yourself than to deny yourself.” And of course, Bennis’s advice is well-taken: we can all be leaders in whatever we do.

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