On Becoming A Leader | Notes & Review

Posted on December 3, 2010


Warren Bennis. On Becoming A Leader. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1989. (226 pages)

If you’re not confused you don’t know what’s going on.

…staying with the status quo is unacceptable… (xii)


…the social world isn’t nearly as orderly as the physical world, nor is it as susceptible to rules. …people…are anything but uniform and anything but predictable. (1) To an extent, leadership is like beauty: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. (1)

The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

On Becoming a leader is based on the assumption that leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully. (3) The key to full self-expression is understanding one’s self and the world… (3) In fact, the process of becoming a leader is much the same as the process of becoming an integrated human being. (4)

The only thing that matters in art can’t be explained – Braque, French painter

The same might be said of leadership. But leadership, like art, can be demonstrated. (4)

  1. leaders are made, not born, and made more by themselves than by any external means.
  2. no leader sets out to be a leader per se, but rather to express himself freely and fully.
  3. leaders have no interest in proving themselves, but an abiding interest in expressing themselves.

Becoming the kind of person who is a leader is the ultimate act of free will, and if you have the will, this is the way. (8) At bottom, becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. (9)

1 Mastering the Context

Leaders have a significant role in creating the state of mind that is the society. They can serve as symbols of the moral unity of the society. They can express the values that hold the society together. Most important, they can conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart, and unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts. – John W. Gardner, No Easy Victories

There are three basic reasons why leaders are important.

  1. they are responsible for the effectiveness of organizations.
  2. the change and upheaval of the past years has left us with no place to hide. We need anchors in our lives,…a guiding purpose. Leaders fill that need.
  3. there is a pervasive, national concern about the integrity of our institutions.

As a nation can’t survive without public virtue, it can’t progress without a common vision. (20)

Life on this turbulent, complex planet is no longer linear and sequential, one thing logically leading to another. it is spontaneous, contrary, unexpected, and ambiguous. (24)

The first step in becoming a leader, then, is to recognize the context for what it is – a breaker, not a maker; a trap, not a launching pad; an end, not a beginning – and declare your independence. (25)

There are four steps in the process behind Norman Lear’s success in mastering the context:

  1. becoming self-expressive
  2. listening to the inner voice
  3. learning from the right mentors
  4. giving oneself over to a guiding vision

Listening to the inner voice – trusting the inner voice – is one of the most important lessons of leadership. (35)

First and foremost, find out what it is you’re about, and be that. Be what you are, and don’t lose it … It’s very hard to be who we are, because it doesn’t seem to be what anyone wants. – Mr. Bennis (Warren’s father)

But, of course, as Lear has demonstrated, it’s the only way to truly fly. (36)

I have little tolerance for institutional restraints. Institutions should should serve people, but unfortunately it’s often the other way around. people give their allegiance to an institution, and they become prisoners of habits, practices, and rules that make them ultimately ineffectual. – Mathilde Krim

The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself. Thus the process begins. (37)

2 Understanding the Basics

As we survey the path leadership theory has taken, we spot the wreckage of “trait theory,” the “great man” theory, and the “situationist” critique, leadership styles, functional leadership, and finally, leaderless leadership, to say nothing of bureaucratic leadership, charismatic leadership, group- centered leadership, reality-centered leadership, leadership by objective, and so on. the dialectic and reversals of emphases in this area very nearly rival the tortuous twists and turns of child-rearing practices, and one can paraphrase Gertrude Stein by saying, ‘a leader is a follower is a leader.’ – Administrative Science Quarterly

  • The first basic ingredient of leadership is a guiding vision.
  • The second basic ingredient of leadership is passion. Without hope, we cannot survive, much less progress.
  • The next basic ingredient of leadership is integrity. I think there are three essential parts of integrity: self-knowledge, candor, and maturity.
  • Integrity is the basis of trust, which is not as much an ingredient of leadership as it is a product.
  • Two more basic ingredients of leadership are curiosity and daring.

I would argue that more leaders have been made by accident, circumstance, sheer grit, or will than have been made y all the leadership courses put together. Leadership courses can only teach skills. They can’t teach character or vision – and indeed they don’t even try. (42)

Presidents don’t do great things by dwelling on their limitations, but by focusing on their possibilities. – Henry Kissinger

Good leaders engage the world. Bad leaders entrap it, or try. (44)

Leaders, Not Manager

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leaders is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his eye always on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.
whole brain
left brain
common sense

Bottom lines have nothing to do with problem-finding. And we need people who know how to find problems, because th eones we face today aren’t always clearly defined, and they aren’t linear. (47)

It is one of the paradoxes of life that good leaders rise to the top in spite of their weaknesses, while bad leaders rise because of their weakness. (47)

Codifying one’s thinking is an important step in inventing oneself … Writing is the most profound way of codifying your thoughts, the best way of learning from yourself who you are what you believe. (48)

What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say – Emerson

Once Born, Twice Born

Harvard professor Abraham Zaleznik posits that there are two kinds of leaders: once-borns and twice-borns. the once-born’s transition from home and family to independence is relatively easy. twice-borns generally suffer as they grow up, feel different, even isolated, and so develop an elaborate inner life. As they grow older, they become truly independent, relying wholly on their own beliefs and ideas. leaders who are twice born are inner-directed, self-assured, and, as a result, truly charismatic, according to Zaleznik. (49)

I cannot stress too much the need for self-invention. To be authentic is literally to be your own author… (50)

To become a leader, then, you must become yourself, become the maker of your own life. (51)

3 Knowing Yourself

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.” – William James

Know thyself, then, means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be. (54)

Some start the process early, and some don’t do it until later. It doesn’t matter. Self-knowledge, self-invention are lifetime processes. (55)

Four lessons of self-knowledge:

Lesson One: You are your own best teacher. Major stumbling blocks on the path to self-knowledge are denial and blame. (57)

Lesson two: Accept responsibility. Blame no one. I kind of invented my own university… (58)

Lesson Three: You can learn anything you want to learn.

Lesson Four: True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience. “The habit of reflection may be a consequence of facing mortality…To begin to understand any great literature is to understand that it’s a race against death, and it’s the redeeming power of love or God or art or whatever the artist is proposing that’s the thing that makes the race against death worth racing…In a way, reflection is asking the questions that provoke self-awareness.” – Kaplan (61) Nothing is truly yours until you understand it — not even yourself. (61) To look forward with acuity you must first look back with honesty. (62)

Leaders learn from others, but they are not made by others. (63) The paradox becomes a dialectic. The self and the other synthesize through self-invention. (63) What that means is that here and now, true learning must often be preceded by unlearning… (63)

Former Beatle John Lennon gave the aunt who raised him a gold plaque engraved with her oft-repeated dictum, “you’ll never make a living playing that guitar.” (65)

“It seems to me that this chic new phrase ‘dysfunctional family’ is redundant.’ (66)

There is ample evidence that ego development does not stop with physical maturity, and so while we cannot change our height or bone structure, we can change our minds. (67)

Genius…means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way. – William James

Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. – Jean Piaget

I would go a step further. Every time we teach a child something, rather than helping him learn, we keep him from inventing himself. By its very nature, teaching homogenizes, both its subjects and its object. Learning, on the other hand, liberates. (70)

It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry… It is a grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. – Albert Einstein

4 Knowing the World

I took a good deal o’ pains with his education, sir; let him run the streets when he was very young, and shift for his-self. It’s the only way to make a boy sharp, sir. – Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers

All we need at this point in human evolution is to learn what it takes to learn what we should learn – and learn it – Aurelio Peccei

The principle components of innovative learning are

  • Anticipation: being active and imaginative rather than passive and habitual
  • Learning by listening to others
  • Participation: Shaping events, rather than being shaped by them

If you learn to anticipate the future and shape events rather than being shaped by them you will benefit in significant ways. (77)

Maintenance learning, which most organizations and educational institutions practice, seeks to preserve the status quo and make good soldiers of us all. It’s a monologue based in authority, hierarchical, exclusive, and isolate. Being limited and finite, it is a static body of knowledge. (78)

Shock learning keeps us in line and obedient, by confirming our inability to control events or prepare for the future as individuals, and by affirming the need for authority and hierarchical organizations to protect us. (78-9)

Innovative learning is the primary means of exercising one’s autonomy, a means of understanding and working within the prevailing context in a positive way. It is a dialogue that begins with curiosity and is fueled by knowledge, leading to understanding. it is inclusive, unlimited, and un-ending, knowing and dynamic. It allows us to change the way things are. (79)

It’s vital to possess an adequate understanding of the first principles of human behavior in order to perform as optimum supervisors and directors of people. (87)

The question isn’t how many computer scientists use our computers, but how many artists use them. – John Sculley (then) CEO of Apple

If there’s anything I really believe in, it’s the joy of learning and learning every day. – Frances Hesselbein

…The essence of creativity is not the possession of some special talent, it is much more the ability to play. … In organizations where mistakes are not allowed, you get two types of counterproductive behavior. – John Cleese

5 Operating on Instinct

Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was, that in order to be a [Mississippi River] pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know; and the other was, that he must learn it all over again in a different way every 24 hours. – Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

…they relied as much on their intuitive and conceptual skills as on their logical and analytical talents. These are whole-brained people, capable of using both sides of their brain. (103)

Vince Lombardi’s dictum [is] that luck is a combination of preparation and opportunity. (108)

Real leadership probably has more to do with recognizing your own uniqueness than it does with identifying your similarities. – Sydney Pollack

No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. (111)

6 Deploying Yourself: Strike Hard, Try Everything

There is a self, and what I have sometimes referred to as “listening to the impulse voices” means letting the self emerge. Most of us, most of the time (and especially does this apply to children, young people), listen not to ourselves but to Mommy’s introjected voice or Daddy’s voice or to the voice of the Establishment, of the Elders, of authority, or of tradition. – Abraham Maslow, Farther Reaches of Human Nature

“Letting the self emerge” is the essential task for leaders. (113)

Erik Erikson sees our development as a series of resolved conflicts, one for each stage of life. …These conflicts are so basic, and resolving them is so vital, that I’ve come to see the min much broader terms an a more general frame than Erikson’s:

Conflicts Resolutions
Blind trust vs. Suspicion HOPE
Independence vs. Dependence AUTONOMY
Initiative vs. Imitation PURPOSE
Industry vs. Inferiority COMPETENCE
Identity vs. Confusion INTEGRITY
Intimacy vs. Isolation EMPATHY
Generosity vs. Selfishness MATURITY
Illusion vs. Delusion WISDOM

There are two kinds of truth, small truth and great truth. You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is a falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another truth. – Neils Bohr

What is your perspective? (120-1)

  1. When you consider a new project, do you think first of its cost or its benefits?
  2. Do you rank profit or progress first?
  3. Would you rather be rich or famous?
  4. If offered a promotion that required you to move to another city, would you discuss it with your family before accepting it?
  5. Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond?

Vague goals, such as “I just want to be happy” or “I want to live well” … are nearly useless. But so are overly specific goals such as “I want to be chairman of the XYZ Corporation…because they leave out all the other values in life. (123)

The first test is knowing what you want, knowing your abilities and capacities, and recognizing the difference between the two. (123)

The second test is knowing what drives you, knowing what gives you satisfaction, and knowing the difference between the two. (124)

The third test is knowing what your values and priorities are, knowing what the values and priorities of your organization are, and measuring the difference between the two. (126) Being in sync with your organization is almost as important as being in sync with yourself. (127)

The fourth test is – having measured the differences between what you want and what you’re able to do, and between what drives you and what satisfies you, and between what your values are and what the organization’s values are – are you able and willing to overcome those differences? (127)


Entrepreneur  Larry Wilson defined the difference between desire and drive as the difference between expressing yourself and proving yourself. (129)

You can’t make being a leader your principal goal, any more than you can make being happy your goal. In both cases, it has to be the result, not the cause. – Gloria Anderson

Strategic Thinking (listed after Mastery)

Mountain climbers don’t start climbing from the bottom of the mountain. They look at where they want to go, and work backward to where they’re starting from. (135)

The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse. – Carlos Casteneda


I really think youth is something you win from age. You are rather old and stupid when you are young. The youngest men I ever met in my life were Luis Bunuel, who made his greatest films between the ages of 60 and 80, and Arthur Rubinstein, a man who became a genius at 80, being able to strike a note by raising his hand to heaven and making it fall exactly as Beethoven and Chopin demanded. Pablo Picasso painted his most erotic and passionate works when in his 80s. These are men who earned their youth. It took them 80 years to become young. – Novelist Carlos Fuentes

Leaders differ from others in their constant appetite for knowledge and experience, and as their worlds widen and become more complex, so too do their means of understanding. (138)

Frances Hesslebein demonstrates synthesis as she describes her approach to work:

First, you have to figure out how to organize your job, the management of time, what your responsibilities are. Second, you have to learn to lead, not contain. Third, you have to have a clear sense of who you are and a sense of mission, a clear understanding of it, and you must be sure that your principles are congruent with the organization’s principles. Fourth, you have to demonstrate through your behavior all the things you believe a leader and a follower should do. Fifth, you need a great sense of freedom and scope so that you can free the people who work with you to live up to their potential. If you believe in the team approach, you must believe in people and their potential. And you must demand a great deal of them, but be consistent.

7 Moving Through Chaos

If you want to truly understand something, try to change it. – Kurt Lewin

A leader, is by definition, an innovator. (143)

We have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation… The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well, and having done it well, he loves to do it better. – Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man

Leaders learn by leading, and they learn best by leading in the face of obstacles. As weather shapes mountains, so problems make leaders. (146)

Our leaders transform experience into wisdom and, in turn, transform the cultures of their organizations. In this way, society as a whole is transformed. It is neither a tidy or necessarily logical process, but it’s the only one we have. (154)

8 Getting People On Your Side

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” – William Shakespeare, The Life of King Henry V

There’s a lot of leadership that comes out of fear, dependence, and guilt…But the problem is that you’re creating obedience with a residue of resentment. (157)

There is no human being who’s going to do what I say. None. Not even my assistant, who is too smart. The only power I have is the power of persuasion, or inspiration. – Gloria Steinem

There are four ingredients leaders have that generate and sustain trust:

  1. Constancy. Whatever surprises leaders themselves may face, they don’t create any for the group. Leaders are all of a piece; they stay the course.
  2. Congruity. Leaders walk their talk. In true leaders, there is no gap between the theories they espouse and the life they practice.
  3. Reliability. Leaders are there when it counts; they are ready to support their co-workers in the moments that matter.
  4. Integrity. Leaders honor their commitments and promises.

We’re not managing for the sake of being great managers, we’re managing for the mission. I don’t believe in a star system. I believe in helping people identify what they can do well and releasing them to do it. – Frances Hesselbein

Volunteers do not need contracts, they need covenants…Covenantal relationships induce freedom, not paralysis. (162)

Competence, or knowledge, without vision and virtue, breeds technocrats. Virtue, without vision and knowledge, breeds ideologues. Vision, without virtue and knowledge, breeds demagogues. (163)

As Peter Drucker has pointed out, the chief object of leadership is the creation of a human community held together by the work bond for a common purpose. (163)

Since leaders deal with people, not things, leadership without values, commitment, and conviction can only be inhumane and harmful. (163)

9 Organizations Can Help–or Hinder

I am tempted to believe that what we call necessary institutions are no more than institutions to which we have become accustomed. In matters of social constitution, the field of possibilities is much more extensive than men living in their various societies are ready to imagine. – Alexis de tocqueville, Democracy in America

Because the organization is the primary form of the era, it is also the primary shaper. the organization is, or should be, a social architect… (178)

All organizations, especially those that are growing, walk a tightrope between stability and change, tradition and revision. Therefore they must have some means for reflecting on their own experiences and offering reflective structures to their employees. (185)

Corporate vision operates on three levels: strategic, which is the organization’s overriding philosophy; tactical, which is that philosophy in action; and personal, which is that philosophy made manifest in the behavior of each employee. (186)

10 Forging the Future

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 – Eric Hoffer

These are the hard times in which a genius would wish to live…Great necessity calls forth great leaders – Thomas Jefferson

…the leader knows that chaos is the beginning, not the end. Chaos is the source of energy and momentum. (191)

Ten Factors for the Future

  1. Leaders manage the dream. Communicate the vision. Manage the dream by recruiting meticulously, rewarding, retraining, and reorganizing. (192)
  2. Leaders embrace error. “Failure is not the crime. Low aim is.” – John Wooden
  3. Leaders encourage reflective backtalk.
  4. Leaders encourage dissent. Actually, leaders tend to come in two sizes: those who hire reflectors, clones who will mirror the leader’s opinions and desires, and those who hire compensators, people who have complementary views of the organization and the society. Sam Goldwyn: “I want you to tell me exactly what’s wrong with me and MGM. Even if it means losing your job.” (195)
  5. Leaders posses the Nobel Factor: optimism, faith, and hope.
  6. Leaders understand the Pygmalion effect in management. Leaders expect the best of the people around them. (198)
  7. Leaders have what I think of as the Gretzky Factor, a certain “touch.”
  8. Leaders see the long view.
  9. Leaders understand stakeholder symmetry.
  10. Leaders create strategic alliance and partnerships.

If that sounds like an impossible dream to you, consider this: it’s much easier to express yourself than to deny yourself. And much more rewarding, too. (202)

— VIA —

What I appreciated most about this read was the clear articulation of the concept of leadership and the personal aspects of leadership, which, as articulated above, are really all about self-reflection, self-knowledge, and self-application. There’s some resonances here with the War of Art, and the book is quite motivating. And the emphasis on “education” is a refreshing picture as well in this genre where there is such a vast amount of information.

As with other reads, there are plenty of quotes and one-liners to take away. But perhaps what is most satisfying is the hope and expectation that I can remove my focus off of leadership, and simply become a better “me,” a better “person.”