Men’s Talks

Book Review: On Becoming a Leader

Warren Bennis is not only a major figure in the academic discourse of leadership but has also popularized the subject through bestsellers. He co-authored Leaders, based on observation and interview with 90 of America’s leaders, ranging from astronaut Neil Armstrong to McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. The book concludes that leadership is crucial, and it can be learned by anyone.

While Leaders evaluates the nature of Leadership, On Becoming a Leader views leadership is more personal. The book investigates how one can make leadership a habit of existence while around one the world becomes the blur of change. Being a product of more detailed dialogue with a smaller number of people, Bennis’ second book provides great insights, one of which is the theme of the book is that True leaders are not interested in proving themselves, they want above all to be able to express themselves fully.

Proving oneself suggests a constrained or static view of the self, whereas leaders, by continually seeking their fullest expression, must be willing to engage in periodic reinvention.

Life is not a competition but a flowering. Structured education and society often get in the way of leadership: “What we need to know gets lost in what we are told we should know.” Real learning is the process of remembering what is important to you, and becoming a leader is therefore the act of becoming more and more your true self.

Leadership is an engagement with life itself, because it demands that your unique vision be accomplished, and that usually involves a whole life. When people protest that they can’t lead, or don’t want to lead, they are usually thinking of management and giving speeches. But leadership is as varied as people, and the main question is not whether you will be burdened, but how you are challenged to escape mediocrity and conformity and really lead yourself.

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According to Bennis, becoming a leader involves:

❖ Continuous learning and never-dying curiosity.

❖ A compelling vision: leaders first define their reality (what they believe is possible), then set about “managing their dream.”

❖ Developing the ability to communicate that vision and inspire others to follow it.

❖ Tolerating uncertainty and taking on risk: a degree of daring.

❖ Personal integrity: self-knowledge, candour, maturity, welcoming criticism.

❖ Being a one-off, an original: “Leaders learn from others, but are not made by others.”

❖ Reinvention: to create new things sometimes involves recreating yourself. You may be influenced by your genes and environment, but leaders take all their influences and create something unique.

❖ Taking time off to think and reflect, which brings answers and produces resolutions.

❖ Passion for the promises of life: a belief in the best, for yourself and others.

❖ Seeing success in small, everyday increments and joys, not waiting years for the Big Success to arrive.

❖ Using the context of your life, rather than surrendering to it. What does the last point mean? Bennis believes that late twentieth century business life was mostly about managing rather than leading, with people and organizations focusing on small matters and short-term results. His message is: Stop being a product of your context, of your place and time. You can see your context as the backdrop for your genius to develop, or you can let it enslave your mind. In many ways the path of a “driven” person is an easy one, since it does not require much thought.

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The leader’s path is consciously taken, may be more challenging, but involves infinitely greater potential and satisfaction, not to mention better health. To lead, you must make a declaration of independence against the estimation of others, the culture, the age. You must decide to live in the world, but outside existing conceptions of it. Leaders do not merely do well by the terms of their culture, they create new contexts, new things, new ways of doing and being.

Bennis has done as much as anyone to shatter the myth of leaders as heroes, born not made. Above all, leadership is a choice and involves leading ourselves first.

You should grab your copy of the book to find out in detail what being a leader entails.


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