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The Essential Bennis.

The Essential Bennis. By Warren Bennis, with Patricia Ward Biederman. Jossey-Bass, 476 pages. $42.99.

Warren Bennis' legacy in the world of leadership theory is perhaps unrivaled. As founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California and the author of 30 books, he's amply earned the right to kick back and reflect on his contributions. The Essential Bennis is a collection of essays he's written over the years--some dating back to the 1960s--that cover a wide variety of philosophies, events and individuals.


The material is both practically historical and as current as chafing over the recession that clamped its vise on the United States starting in 2008. Bennis ruminates on the sorry state the nation found itself in, arguing that "every decade or so, I find myself writing that we need leaders now as never before."

The book was put together with the help of journalist and longtime collaborator Patricia Ward Biederman and features an interesting element: Commentaries by others, academic and otherwise, about the essay preceding it. These are refreshingly candid and perceptive, and offer far more than simply sugar-coated praise for Bennis' views.

Some of the essays bring readers up to speed on Bennis' formative years and his early academic career, teaching at Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One poignant piece recalls his unhappy years at the State University of Buffalo in New York, when he was recruited by a dynamic president only to find that the turmoil of the late 1960s--and the president's own shortcomings--undid that leader's plans to take the university down a bold new path.

The essays touch periodically on some of Bennis' key precepts: That bureaucracies are doomed to die and be replaced by flatter organizations, and that organizations need candor and transparency to flourish. In propounding both, he was certainly ahead of his time.

"Adaptive, problem-solving, temporary systems of diverse specialists, linked together by coordinating and task-evaluating executive specialists in an organic flux--this is the organization form that will gradually replace bureaucracy as we know it," he wrote. This prescient analysis was written in 1966--almost 45 years ago.

Taken as a whole, the book explores varied aspects of leadership, among them: How organizations create leaders (or don't); what it means to become a leader; why leadership is considered a "performing art;" and how to cultivate leadership qualities in others.

Many of the essays draw on events of the time, giving them a solid grounding and a strong entry point for readers. They aren't just about philosophy, but applied philosophy.

Bennis' seminal book, On Becoming a Leader, was published in 1989 and republished last year. At the age of 85, he's still engaged and opinionated. A book like this isn't simply a business book, but a book to revisit and absorb a life's learnings about a subject fundamental to human society.

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Author:Marshall, Jeffrey
Publication:Financial Executive
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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