Long before Warren Bennis became a world-renowned expert on leadership and a much-honored USC business professor, he was an infantry officer during World War II in Europe, where he started to hone his ideas about leadership being most effective when it steered away from strict, top-down hierarchies.
“Overnight, I learned that a leader is not simply someone who experiences the personal exhilaration of being in charge,” he wrote in his book, “An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change” (1993). “A leader is someone whose actions have the most profound consequences on other people’s lives, for better or for worse, sometimes for ever and ever.”
Bennis, 89, who wrote nearly 30 books, mostly on the topic of leadership, and was on the faculty at USC for 35 years, died Thursday at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica of age-related causes, said his daughter, Kate Bennis.
Though his ideas ran contrary to how many old-line companies were run, he was a highly sought-after speaker at business conferences and corporations, reportedly earning up to $20,000 per appearance. He told audiences that to be effective in modern business structures, leaders had to abandon “command-and-control” attitudes that stifled creativity and new ideas. And he warned against micromanaging that could get a company stuck in outmoded ways of doing things while the world changed around them.
“The manager has his eye on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon,” he told audiences, as reported in a 1994 Los Angeles Times profile. Another aphorism he liked to use: “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.”
He arrived at USC in 1979, and was the founding chairman of The Leadership Institute at the university’s Marshall School of Business. Also after coming to the university, he wrote what is likely his most influential book, “On Becoming a Leader” (1989). Vice President Al Gore had his staff members read it, and he brought Bennis to Washington to conduct a seminar for his staff.
But Bennis’ more personal tome was “An Invented Life,” with the title pointing to how he viewed his own path.
“Warren once told me that he believed each person contained ‘many selves,’ ” said James Ellis, dean of the Marshall School of Business, in a statement Friday. “And that the key to a successful life was to draw out our best selves and our best talents.”
Bennis was born March 8, 1925, in New York and grew up in Westwood, N.J. He did not always feel close to his family — his mother wanted him to become a professional accordionist, his father failed at several businesses. When his father lost his last steady job, Bennis “vowed never again to feel such utter hopelessness,” he said in the 1994 Times interview.
After his time in the Army, during which he was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Antioch College and doctorate in 1955 in economics and social sciences from MIT. He also taught at MIT, but felt pressured to conform to established business norms. “On some days, I thought of myself as a total fraud,” he said. In the 1960s he began formulating management principles that at the time were considered far off the beaten path.
Those guiding leadership principles were similar to what he was still advocating three decades later. But the business world had changed around him, much to his benefit. In the 1994 interview, he declared, “I was prematurely right.”
In addition to his daughter, Kate, of Charlottesville, Va., he is survived by sons John Bennis of Costa Mesa and Will Bennis of Prague, Czech Republic; his wife Grace Gabe; and six grandchildren.