THE SUNDAY PROFILE : An Invented Life : Fueled by the desire to be everything his family was not, Warren Bennis created a world full of power and prestige. But now the business guru is wrestling with thoughts of fun.
He has dated Ann Landers, been quoted by Al Gore and received faxes from the Dalai Lama.
At 69, Warren Bennis is in the thick of what he calls “an invented life.” He is guru to a generation of business leaders, owner of a perpetual suntan (which he somehow maintained even while living in Buffalo, N.Y.), and new husband to a woman he dumped at the altar some 30 years ago.
In recent months, he also has been touched by the shadow of a revived controversy over 1960s human radiation experiments, but that issue seems far from his mind on this day.
Sinking into the seat of a limousine streaking across the desert, he slips off his shoes and talks about heart attacks, twin brothers and the importance of learning to sing. It’s a Friday afternoon and Bennis is running behind for a speech in a hotel near Palm Springs, the latest in a hectic series of appearances that reportedly earn him up to $20,000 a shot.
The conversation, like the speech, is a stream of offbeat anecdotes, quotes and light humor. And the theme of each is leadership and change. Bennis--a USC business professor who has metamorphosed from wanna-be rabbi to soldier to college president to author to one of the hottest guns on the corporate consulting and lecture circuit--says he is addicted to new experiences and ideas.
The fascination started at alma mater Antioch College--a university that was politically correct decades before the term was invented. (When Bennis arrived in 1947, students there were ordering organically grown wheat from a special locale in Texas and joining the Young Communist League because fraternities were verboten .)
Bennis, fresh out of the Army after a lonely childhood in the Bronx and New Jersey, dove into the maelstrom of ideas and emerged a pipe-smoking, tweedy clone of Antioch President Doug McGregor: “I . . . tried to be like him in every conceivable way,” Bennis writes in a 1993 collection of essays.
At MIT, where he earned a doctorate in economics and social sciences, the self-described “Milli Vanilli” syndrome continued, with Bennis lip-syncing the words of so many professors that “when I began teaching undergraduates, I didn’t always know who I’d be that day or what I would sound like. On some days, I thought of myself as a total fraud.”
It was also while teaching management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that he met Grace Gabe, now his third wife but then a third-year medical student who used to follow him home in her little green MG.
“We loved Japanese movies of the time,” she wrote in a recent Psychology Today article on rekindling old flames. “After a film, Warren would race up and grab me with a samurai leap and a hiss (and) I would fold up with laughter. We danced around his apartment. We rushed out to buy the latest albums. And we decided to live together at a time when it wasn’t done.”
But several years later, three days before their scheduled wedding, Bennis ended the relationship with a 100-word telegram--and Gabe didn’t see him for another 30 years.
Bennis says he got cold feet. Gabe, now a psychiatrist, offers a different theory: “Warren was always a very ambitious man . . . and I can’t count the hours we spent discussing the strategies of his getting ahead in the academic community. . . . He wanted a wife devoted to helping him . . . (but I had my own career and) was not available on a daily basis to back him up in the social arena of Cambridge academic competition.”
Twelve months afterward, he married someone else--who came from a wealthy Cleveland family and didn’t work. Gabe also eventually married.
It wasn’t until 1990--one heart attack, two marriages and 20 books later--that Bennis reconsidered his decision. He looked up Gabe, by then divorced, during a trip to Washington and--after she overcame her wariness and they slowly worked through the old hurts--a wedding was set for November, 1992.
“I think she had a moment of anxiety on the morning of the ceremony,” he says, “when I went out for a run.”
Three days after the hotel appearance, Warren Bennis is in a seaside conference room in San Diego, perched in front of a huge projected image of planet Earth, telling 250 executives about a Tibetan monk and modern technology.
“A few years ago,” he intones, “I invited the Dalai Lama to participate in a seminar for (leaders) at USC . . . (and in response,) the embodiment of thousands of years of Tibetan spiritualism graciously declined--by fax.”
The lesson? The world is undergoing rapid, seismic change and leaders need to adjust. “If you think you’re going to be successful running your business in the next 10 years the way you did the last 10 years, you’re out of your mind,” he says, quoting Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta. But not many companies seem to be getting the message.
Bennis ticks off a list: IBM. General Motors. Even organized crime. According to the New York Times, he says, Mafia coffers are shrinking because mob bosses have been “too content with what they had to think globally.”
Bennis deadpans: “I expect any day now I’ll get an invitation to speak on a (management) panel (to them too). And I can assure you I’ll do it.”
The talk continues with a compendium of maxims (“The manager has his eye on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon”), one-liners (“Trying to lead college faculty is like herding cats”) and, of course, Bennis’ prescription for management success in the late 20th Century: Dump the autocratic, “command-and-control” techniques of the past in favor of a workplace that encourages employee self-esteem, creativity, dissent, empowerment and teamwork.
The result of this switch from “macho to maestro,” he promises, will be more and better ideas from employees, jumps in productivity and a stronger competitive edge. Executives must do less managing and more leading, he adds. They must possess a balance of vision, optimism, expertise, ambition and personal integrity: “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.”
The principles are distilled from his extensive interviews with such leaders as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, basketball coach Pat Riley, General Electric boss John F. Welch Jr. and a Philadelphia zookeeper who used to be a government administrator. (“He told me there was virtually no difference between the two jobs,” Bennis quips.)
For these and other nuggets of wisdom, the executives at the Clemson University-sponsored conference have paid about $350 apiece--and many seem absorbed by the presentation. “I wish I could follow him around for about half a year,” says a Texas Instruments official familiar with Bennis’ work.
If that were to happen, however, the official might learn that Bennis’ myriad articles, books and speeches are frequently identical--"I don’t know how many truths there are,” he explains--and even his conversations can sound canned. Several seemingly spontaneous anecdotes and answers to a reporter’s questions, for example, turn out to be lifted from his lectures.
Indeed, much of Bennis’ current management philosophy is the same as what he advocated during the 1960s, only then it was considered too radical and now it’s widely accepted. “I was prematurely right,” he declares.
And it’s paying off.
Publishers are reissuing his books and essays. Business Week describes him as fascinating and provocative. And Vice President Gore says Bennis’ 1989 volume “On Becoming a Leader” is must reading for his advisers. In May, Gore even had Bennis conduct a daylong seminar for his Washington staff.
Rival business guru John Kotter of Harvard says Bennis--who also has consulted for the likes of Ford Motor Co., Polaroid and TRW--is one of only a handful of speakers in the world who has conquered the senior-management group lecture market. “Aside from Tom Peters on occasion, the only other person I bump into is Warren,” Kotter says.
Still, Bennis isn’t exactly a household name. His closest brush with that kind of fame, he says, came when People magazine photographed him dancing with advice columnist Ann Landers, whom he dated during the early 1980s.
White-haired, manicured and eternally poised, Bennis leads a somewhat Brahmin existence. He has a fondness for limos, lives on the shore in Santa Monica (“Hang a left at the very end of the continent,” he tells visitors) and wears casual denim work shirts with Armani tags on the pocket.
A Jaguar sits in his garage (when it’s not in the shop) and an original Rauschenberg hangs by the front door of his starkly furnished split-level home.
It is a lifestyle driven by a “search for power and potency” that Bennis traces to early childhood. As he explains in an autobiographical essay published in his 1993 book “An Invented Life,” he was fearful of his mother (who insisted he become a professional accordionist), unattached to his older twin brothers and disappointed in his father, a perennially unsuccessful entrepreneur who opened and closed a succession of candy stores, malt shops and soda stands.
Bennis recalls the day his father lost his last steady job as “one of the most wretched and despondent of my life. Without realizing it then, I vowed never again to feel such utter hopelessness.”
In essence, he decided to become everything his family was not.
Thus, the invented life began. He underwent six years of psychoanalysis during the 1950s, pored over Ralph Waldo Emerson and turned his own writing into “self-therapy” by choosing academic topics involving unresolved personal conflicts. He broke past his shyness by forcing himself into public-speaking roles. And he transformed his mind by devouring information. Bennis says he reads about 70 books a year (mostly history and nonfiction), skims another 400 and looks at three newspapers a day. And he has hired a computer consultant to teach him electronic information-gathering.
He also claims to “talk to his soul"--usually by looking for messages in his dreams--but acknowledges that he “may be spiritually deficient.”
“I’m certainly not an atheist,” says Bennis, who grew up in a nominally Jewish household and briefly considered the idea of being a rabbi. “When I read some work or hear some music that is genius, such as Mahler’s First Symphony, I think, my God, where does that come from. I attribute it to some greater being. . . . (But) I’m much more connected with the material world, much more Dionysian. I enjoy . . . the sun, good clothes, good food and good music.”
And good tans.
As one of his three children once wrote in a grammar school essay, “My dad is kinda short for his age, but I’ve never seen him without a tan.”
Even in Buffalo. After teaching at MIT, Boston University and Harvard (where he conducted social-science research with Timothy Leary in the latter’s pre-LSD days), Bennis was hired as provost at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1967.
His assignment was to help transform the school from “conventional university to . . . Berkeley of the East.” But student unrest and a little girl derailed his dream.
At first, it was a heady time. Dressed in Tirolean cape and beret, Bennis revamped departments and hosted endless soirees. “Our house was constantly filled with academic superstars and promising newcomers,” he writes in his autobiographical essay.
But his family life suffered.
Bennis and his wife held so many parties--65 in the first year alone--that when he asked his 4-year-old daughter, Kate, what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered: “A guest.”
“I picked her up and laughed,” Bennis writes. Then later, “when I was by myself, I cried. At 4, Kate was like the psychiatrist’s child who wants to grow up to be a patient. . . . I learned a great deal at Buffalo, but one thing I did not learn was how to integrate intimacy with ambition.”
The final blow came when the university president called in an army of police to quell a student uprising. Bennis, who objected to the decision, resigned.
From there, he went to the University of Cincinnati, which presented problems of a different sort. Hired in 1971 as university president, Bennis soon found himself the victim of “a vast, amorphous, unwitting conspiracy to prevent me from doing anything whatever to change the university’s status quo.”
He writes: “This discovery caused me to formulate . . . Bennis’ First Law of Academic Pseudodynamics, which states that routine work drives out non-routine work and smothers to death all creative planning, all fundamental change in . . . any institution.”
He was besieged by--among other things--professors complaining about the temperature of classrooms, coaches grumbling about the school track and parents griping about four-letter words in an English class text.
There was also the radiation problem.
For 11 years before Bennis’ arrival in September, 1971, at least 88 terminal cancer patients at the university’s medical center--most of them low-income blacks with a median IQ of 87--had been exposed to potentially lethal doses of whole-body radiation in a study sponsored by the military to gauge the effects of nuclear war.
Shortly after Bennis was hired, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) began investigating the experiments, requesting interviews with the handful of patients who were still alive and threatening a Senate hearing.
Documents released earlier this year indicate that Bennis and other administrators--with no privacy statute to block the release of patient names--withheld the identities by arguing that interviews would harm the patients’ health.
In fact, at least one of the survivors had already been questioned for a public-television show.
“I was furious about (the names not being released),” Bennis says now. “I had been told it was for health reasons, then I discovered that some (of the patients) had been interviewed for a TV program. . . . I felt personally double-crossed by the (medical school officials).”
He says he doesn’t remember why the names weren’t released after that. Although conceding that he was ultimately accountable for the decision, he says that “other people (from the medical center) were calling the shots.”
Bennis says he was “truly offended and saddened” by the experiments, but “my No. 1 thing was to stop a Senate hearing . . . because I thought it would be damaging for the university from a public-relations point of view and because we were trying to go (from being a city college to being) a state university. . . . I was a new president. . . . I got the best advice I could and took the best steps I could take.”
In April, 1972, he canceled further radiation experiments--and Kennedy called off the hearing.
The matter wasn’t reopened until a few months ago, when the U.S. Department of Energy vowed to “come clean” on various Cold War radiation experiments and local and national newspapers began investigating. Since then, Congress has held hearings, patient names have been uncovered and several class-action lawsuits have been filed by families of the victims. (Bennis isn’t named in the suits.)
English professor Martha Stephens, who belonged to a junior faculty committee that criticized the experiments in 1972, says she still resents Bennis for what she considers a cover-up of the matter: “I don’t say he did it single-handedly, but he was a major factor.”
But Bennis’ successor as university president, Henry R. Winkler, says Stephens and others are unfairly “trying to impose contemporary standards on how (Bennis acted). I think he tried to handle it responsibly and did.”
Bennis, for his part, simply wishes the issue would go away: “I don’t want to dwell too much on it, and I hope you don’t dwell on it, either, because it happened 23 years ago. . . . It’s not anything to do with Warren Bennis today.”
But it did figure into his growing disenchantment with moving up the academic career ladder. And in 1978, he left the university.
A year later, he was divorced from his wife of 17 years, living on a houseboat in Sausalito and recovering from a heart attack. In the hospital, “I (became) acutely aware that something had come adrift inside,” he writes in his essay. “Forcibly removed from the overbooked professional life I had created for myself, I began to write poetry for the first time ever.”
In 1980, he came to USC as a sort of cameo professor in the business school. He does research, writes and occasionally spends a day or two teaching. After moving to L.A., he also married a television reporter he met in Cincinnati, but the relationship unraveled after three years.
He’s now on sabbatical, but says he’ll return to USC in the fall to raise money and hire staff for the Leadership Institute he founded at the school three years ago.
In the meantime, he’s working on a new book--a study of the creative synergy behind such groups as the Manhattan Project and the Clinton campaign--and trying his hand at a one-act play.
Nibbling on a salad and sipping iced tea in his beachfront home on a recent Monday, Bennis says he is again aware of the tug between his professional and personal selves.
“This house (with its bleached wood floors and stark white walls) is so simple and uncluttered, whereas my life is very complicated and cluttered.”
And part of him wants to uncomplicate.
Next year, he says, he’s retiring from the corporate lecture circuit. He wants more time for family--son John, 28, is a Newport Beach stockbroker who comes up for tennis games with Dad; daughter Kate, now 30 and a struggling actress, visits from New York; and son Will, 26, checks in from Prague.
He wants more freedom for friends--among them Norman Lear, Jonas Salk and 93-year-old Sam Jaffe, a film producer who calls Bennis “the best friend I’ve ever had.”
And he wants to warble. “I think music is fun, and it makes me feel good when I sing,” he says. “I think it has something to do with endorphins. It gives me a high.”
At the same time, another part of Bennis argues against such pleasures. He quotes E.B. White: “I get up every morning determined both to change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes, this makes planning the day difficult.”
Adds Bennis: “I’ve never been able to both change the world and have a good time, so I have to make choices. Right now, I’m leaning toward the hell of a good time.”
Native: No. Raised on the East Coast, lives in Santa Monica.
Family: Married to psychiatrist Grace Gabe; three grown children from his first marriage.
Interests: Reading, singing, playing tennis.
On marrying the woman he had left three days before their wedding 30 years earlier: “I think she had a moment of anxiety on the morning of the ceremony when I went out for a run.”
On being a university administrator: “Trying to lead college faculty is like herding cats.”
On his spiritual beliefs: “I’m certainly not an atheist. When I read some work or hear some music that is genius, such as Mahler’s First Symphony, I think, my God, where does that come from. I attribute it to some greater being. . . . (But) I’m much more connected with the material world. I enjoy . . . the sun, good clothes, good food and good music.”
On his plans to do more singing: “I think music is fun, and it makes me feel good when I sing. I think it has something to do with endorphins. It gives me a high.”