Warren G. Bennis, an eminent scholar and author who advised presidents and business executives on his academic specialty, the essence of successful leadership — a commodity he found in short supply in recent decades — died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 89.
The University of Southern California, where he had been a distinguished professor of business administration for more than 30 years, announced his death on Friday. He lived in Santa Monica, Calif.
Professor Bennis wrote more than 30 books on leadership, a subject that grabbed his attention early in life, when he led a platoon during World War II at the age of 19.
“I look at Peter Drucker as the father of management and Warren Bennis as the father of leadership,” William W. George, a professor at the Harvard Business School and a former chief executive of the medical device company Medtronic, said in an interview in 2009.
As a consultant, Professor Bennis was sought out by generations of business leaders, among them Howard D. Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, who regarded him as a mentor. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan all conferred with him.
As an educator, he taught organizational studies at Harvard, Boston University and the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management.
Professor Bennis believed in the adage that great leaders are not born but made, insisting that “the process of becoming a leader is similar, if not identical, to becoming a fully integrated human being,” he said in an interview in 2009. Both, he said, were grounded in self-discovery.
In his influential book “On Becoming a Leader,” published in 1989, Professor Bennis wrote that a successful leader must first have a guiding vision of the task or mission to be accomplished and the strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failure. Another requirement, he said, is “a very particular passion for a vocation, a profession, a course of action.”
“The leader who communicates passion gives hope and inspiration to other people,” he wrote.
Integrity, he said, is imperative: “The leader never lies to himself, especially about himself, knows his flaws as well as his assets, and deals with them directly.”
So, too, are curiosity and daring: “The leader wonders about everything, wants to learn as much as he can, is willing to take risks, experiment, try new things. He does not worry about failure but embraces errors, knowing he will learn from them.”
But Professor Bennis said he found such leadership largely missing in the late 20th century in all quarters of society — in business, politics, academia and the military. In “On Becoming a Leader,” he took aim at corporate leadership, finding it particularly ineffectual and tracing its failings in part to corporate corruption, extravagant executive compensation and an undue emphasis on quarterly earnings over long-term benefits, both for the business itself and society at large.
He worried until recently about what he called a “leadership vacuum” in America, a problem he said was caused to a great extent by a lack of high-quality leadership training at the nation’s business schools.
A dearth of visionary business leaders, he said, meant that companies were being led more by managers of the bottom line than by passionate, independent thinkers who could steer an organization effectively.
“We are at least halfway through the looking glass, on our way to utter chaos,” he wrote in “On Becoming a Leader.” “When the very model of a modern manager becomes C.E.O., he does not become a leader, he becomes a boss, and it is the bosses who have gotten America into its current fix.”
Warren Gamaliel Bennis was born in the Bronx on March 8, 1925. He grew up in Westwood, N.J., during the Great Depression. In 1933, his father, a shipping clerk, was fired “with no appeal and no justification,” Professor Bennis recalled in an interview for this obituary in February.
“I was struck at how he was left in a situation where you are helpless, where the next morning you are out of work,” he added. “For the next three or four months, he was loading illegal booze on the Mafia’s trucks to keep food on the table.”
The experience taught him about the power of organizations and their impact on lives. “That will never happen to me,” he recalled thinking. “I will never lose my power to affect my own life.”
With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the Army and completed officers’ training at Ft. Benning, Ga. In 1944, as a newly commissioned 19-year old lieutenant, he became one of the youngest platoon leaders to serve in Europe, arriving just as the Battle of the Bulge was concluding. He was awarded both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
After the war he enrolled at Antioch College in Ohio and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951. Its innovative president, Douglas McGregor, a social psychologist, had taken him under his wing and recommended him to M.I.T. for postgraduate work. There he completed a doctorate in economics, studying under Paul A. Samuelson, Franco Modigliani and Robert M. Solow, all of whom were later awarded the Nobel in economic science. Organizational behavior was an emerging academic discipline, and Professor Bennis immersed himself in it.
In the late 1960s Professor Bennis took a break from theoretical work and accepted an appointment as provost of the State University of New York at Buffalo for four years. That was followed by a seven-year stint as president of the University of Cincinnati.
A heart attack in 1979 during an academic conference in England sidelined him for three months of recuperation. After returning to the United States he joined U.S.C. in 1980 as a business professor.
Reinvigorated, Professor Bennis wrote a series of influential books, including “Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge” and “Why Leaders Can’t Lead,” and began advising business and political leaders more regularly.
Professor Bennis’s first marriage, in 1962, to Clurie Williams, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Grace Gabe, a physician he married in 1992; his children from his first marriage, Katherine, John and Will Bennis; his stepdaughters, Nina Freedman and Eden Steinberg; six grandchildren; and four step-grandchildren.
Since 1999 Professor Bennis had been chairman of the advisory board of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. His memoir, “Still Surprised,” was published in 2010.
In recent years Professor Bennis became more optimistic about the next wave of business leaders, labeling it “the Crucible Generation,” which he said compared favorably to his own World War II generation.
Rather than hubris and arrogance, he said, this new generation’s brand of leadership may well be characterized by “respect, not just tolerance.” He saw signs that business leaders in the decades to come, inheriting a diverse and complex global environment, would have a better understanding of the territory in which they lead — what he called “contextual intelligence.”
“The truth,” he wrote in an essay in Forbes magazine in 2009, “may be that history, in its kindness, gave this new generation a grand crucible challenge, as it did my own. The young of today have been summoned to receive that same kindness through the collective failures of their elders.”
Warren Gamaliel Bennis (March 8, 1925 – July 31, 2014) was an American scholar, organizational consultant and author, widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of Leadership studies. Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at theUniversity of Southern California.
"His work at MIT in the 1960s on group behavior foreshadowed -- and helped bring about -- today's headlong plunge into less hierarchical, more democratic and adaptive institutions, private and public," management expert Tom Peters wrote in 1993 in the foreword to Bennis’ An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change.
Management expert James O'Toole, in a 2005 issue of Compass, published by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, claimed that Bennis developed "an interest in a then-nonexistent field that he would ultimately make his own -- leadership -- with the publication of his 'Revisionist Theory of Leadership' in Harvard Business Review in 1961." O'Toole observed that Bennis challenged the prevailing wisdom by showing that humanistic, democratic-style leaders are better suited to dealing with the complexity and change that characterize the leadership environment.
Military service and education
Bennis grew up within a working-class Jewish family in Westwood, New Jersey, before enlisting in the United States Armyin 1943. He would go on to serve as one of the Army’s youngest infantry officers in the European theater of operations, and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Following his military service, Bennis enrolled in Antioch College in 1947, where he earned his BA in 1951. In 1952, Bennis was awarded an Honors Certificate from London School of Economics, and Hicks Fellow from MIT. Antioch president Douglas McGregor, considered one of the founders of the modern democratic management philosophy, would take Bennis on as a protégé, a scholarly relationship that would prove fruitful when both later served as professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Bennis earned his PhD from MIT in 1955, majoring in Social Sciences and Economics. There, Bennis would hold the post of chairman of the Organizational Studies Department.
Within the area of management, Bennis sought to move from theory to practice in 1967, taking the post of provost of the State University of New York at Buffalo and the presidency of the University of Cincinnati in 1971. He authored two books on leadership during his presidency: The Leaning Ivory Tower, 1973, and The Unconscious Conspiracy: Why Leaders Can’t Lead, 1976.
Bennis chose to return to the life of a teacher, consultant and author following a heart attack in 1979, joining the faculty of the University of Southern California. Most of the best-known of his 27 books followed, including the bestselling Leaders and On Becoming A Leader, both translated into 21 languages. An Invented Life was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. More recent books, Organizing Genius, 1997, Co-Leaders, 1999, and Managing The Dream, 2000, summarize Bennis’s interests in leadership, judgment, organizational change and creative collaboration. Geeks & Geezers, 2002, examines the differences and similarities between leaders thirty years and younger and leaders seventy years and older.
Bennis spent time as an adviser to four United States presidents and several other public figures, and has also consulted for numerous FORTUNE 500 companies.
He has also spent time on the faculties of Harvard and Boston University and taught at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIM-C), INSEAD and IMD. In addition to his current posts at USC, Bennis serves as chairman of the Advisory Board of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. He is a visiting professor of leadership at the University of Exeter (UK) and a senior fellow at UCLA’s School of Public Policy and Social Research.
The Wall Street Journal named him as one of the top ten most sought speakers on management in 1993; Forbes magazine referred to him as the “dean of leadership gurus” in 1996. The Financial Times referred to him in 2000 as “the professor who established leadership as a respectable academic field.” In August, 2007, Business Week ranked him as one of the top ten thought leaders in business. 
His work On Becoming a Leader, originally published in 1989, lays the foundation that a leader must be authentic, i.e. author of one’s own creation; a combination of experience, self-knowledge, and personal ethics. This need for an effective leader to remain true to their self-invention would be further expanded upon by others into what has become known as the Authentic Leadership approach.
Warren Bennis has written approximately 30 books, many with co-authors. Here is a selection:
- 1974, The Leaning Ivory Tower (ISBN 0875891578)
- 1985, The Planning of Change (ISBN 0030895189)
- 1992, Visionary Leadership: Creating a Compelling Sense of Direction for Your Organization
- 1993, Beyond Bureaucracy: Essays on the Development and Evolution of Human Organization
- 1993, The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing to Our Lives
- 1997, Beyond Counterfeit Leadership: How You Can Become a More Authentic Leader
- 1997, Beyond Leadership: Balancing Economics, Ethics and Ecology (ISBN 155786960X)
- 1997, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration (ISBN 0201570513)
- 1997, Why Leaders Can't Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues (ISBN 1555421520)
- 1998, The Temporary Society co-authored with Philip Slater (2nd edition)
- 1999, Co-Leaders: The Power of Great Partnerships
- 1999, Managing People Is Like Herding Cats: Warren Bennis on Leadership (ISBN 096349175X)
- 2000, Managing the Dream: Reflections on Leadership and Change (ISBN 0738203327)
- 2000, "Best Practices in Leadership Development" (ISBN 0787952370)
- 2002, Geeks & Geezers : How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (ISBN 1578515823)
- 2003, Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge (ISBN 0887308392)
- 2005, Reinventing Leadership: Strategies to Empower the Organization (ISBN 9780060820527)
- 2008, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor co-authored with Dan Goleman and Jim O'Toole (ISBN 0470278765, ISBN 978-0-470-27876-5)
- 2009, Judgment: How Great Leaders Make Winning Calls co-authored with Noel Tichy (ISBN 1591841534, ISBN 978-1-59184-153-1)
- 2009, On Becoming a Leader (20th Anniversary Edition/3rd edition) (ISBN 0738208175)
- 2010, Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership co-authored with Patricia Ward Biederman (ISBN 9780470432389)