January 18, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
I just finished reading a new book by Warren Bennis, Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership. I loved it for a number of reasons.
First, Bennis is the father of applied leadership studies and a writer whose prose sings with humor, grace, and wisdom. I always learn from Warren Bennis and from how he frames experience. I expected to do the same from this – his book #30 – and I wasn’t disappointed.
I’ve got Post-its marking pages with good reminders and advice on topics like, garnering power through proximity (70), recruiting effectively (116), staying engaged in times of crisis (123), networking like a pro (131), the power of forgiveness (134), staff empowerment as “executive constellation” (146), leader renewal through self-reinvention (150), trust vs. charisma as a leadership cornerstone (184), the imperative for enhancing adaptive capacity and ongoing learning (193), and grace in aging (all of Chapter 9).
Unlike some reviewers, I enjoyed digging through the stories of Bennis’s successes and failures – his crucibles to transform experiences into leadership muster – for truths that spoke to me. That’s what a good memoir does. So caution: this is not a book heavy on advice about how to lead.
No, Still Surprised is a book that encourages readers to think about their life experiences and choices, what they’ve made of and from them, and what work is left to be done.
I was surprised, for example, how quickly the book hooked me into reflecting on my own graduate school days in Cambridge. Some stories sent me easily down memory lane: thinking about the dynamic early days of the Sloan School at MIT (where I took courses while at Harvard), or remembering the excitement in discovering that a field like organizational behavior existed – and being thankful for wonderful graduate school chums and faculty who fed my excitement and who have remained close friends since (and because of) those earlier years.
Other Bennis stories brought back poignant memories of people – some of whom are no longer with us — who played a role (direct or indirect) in shaping my career choice, professional interests and directions, and values. The diverse cast of characters during those intense NTL Bethel summers, for example, made learning challenging and fun. Our eldest son is named Chris so no more need be said about the place that Chris Argyris, an extraordinary teacher and mentor to me and to my husband, holds in our hearts. My dog is named Douglas McGregor as a tip of the hat to the man whose classic, The Human Side of Enterprise, is still vital, important, and undervalued in today’s bottom line-oriented work world. And reconnecting with Ed Schein is always a highlight of any trip back east for important life reasons.
But the real power of the book came from Bennis’s ability to capture the electricity, the evolving dialogue, the community of inquiry, the hope, the shared interests, and the commitment to social change and human development that characterized the Cambridge scene for me.
I had forgotten all the early 99 cent breakfasts at The Tasty, the noisy greasy dinners at Buddy’s Sirloin Pit, the late night coffees at Café Algiers and the like – the regular coming together with colleagues to share new insights on our evolving professional selves and our plans for how to better use our new skills. Are we Model II yet? How can we learn to reflect-in-action? What is real collaboration? The conversations and meetings – formal and informal — about intervention theory, professional effectiveness, tacit characteristics of organizational life, models about self-fulfilling prophecies and defense mechanisms, applying ethnomethodology, opportunities for planned change, and shared field-work projects were lively, frequent, and learning-filled.
Faculty, students, managers, consultants – we all talked with and to each other, no status separations, working together in Ivory Tower offices or on the shop floor. The simple currency for invitation to participate was a passion for the issues and something to contribute – and newcomers were welcomed and mentored. The regular Sunday night meetings in his Boston home that Bennis describes in the book is one example of this larger phenomenon.
This was a time and place for me marked by a vibrancy and an unapologetic commitment to issues of practice – to the leaders, managers, followers, and communities whose lives and work could be made better as a result of our thinking, writing, coaching, musing, and consulting. We weren’t learning just for ourselves and our career advancement. We were driven by a larger purpose – a sacred purpose. We wanted to make things better. And our teachers, mentors, and role models like Warren Bennis, helped us believe that was possible.
That unshakeable faith in human nature and in a better future is at the core of Still Surprised. And it is not now – nor was it back then – the faith of a Pollyanna.
Those who taught and led the neophytes – people like Warren Bennis, Chris Argyris, Ed Schein, Dick Beckhard, Don Schon, and others — understood the inefficiencies, pain, and down-sides of organizational life. Many has seen first hand the evils of war and injustice, and they set out to do something about that. They brought open minds, entrepreneurial spirits, and irrepressible optimism to the challenge – convinced that new ways of organizing, leading, and managing were possible.
They were carriers of America’s historic faith in progress and initiative. They believed in democracy, openness, and the worth of every individual. Above all, they believed in learning and experimentation. They knew they did not have all the answers – or even all the questions. But they were confident that both were waiting to be found. Their faith and hard work spawned an exciting time, a revolutionary intellectual movement – a paradigm shift – that changed forever how the world understood people, work, leadership, organizations, and change. Their efforts gave rise to the organizational and applied behavioral sciences, and they developed a powerful array of ideas and practices for understanding and improving organizations – team building, change management, coaching, performance feedback, organizational design, managing diversity, empowerment, participative management, EEO efforts, to name just a few — that we have come to take for granted today. Most important, they helped people like me believe in ourselves, our potential, and the potential of those around us.
Still Surprised challenged me to remember all that. May it do some of the same for you! It reminded me of the power, energy, and intellectual stimulation in a community of like-minded souls – and of how rarely we think to create those for ourselves. But it’s never too late, and there is much work left to be done even as the days grow shorter for us all. Contribution is what leadership is really all about. What will yours be?