On Becoming a Leader

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The leadership book I read for this class was On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis. A friend recommended it to me, and my honest first impression of the book was that it was going to be another cliched, dry 12-step program on how to “be a better leader.” But as I read it, I was more and more pleasantly surprised at the things I was learning.

Bennis writes with a refreshing simplicity. His book isn’t a 12-step program but rather a 10-part guide that emphasizes qualities of a leader. It’s not meant as a magical self-help program that will instantly turn you into a leader after you finish reading it; Bennis himself even says, “Leadership courses can only teach skills. They can’t teach character or vision — and indeed, they don’t even try. Developing character and vision is the way leaders invent themselves.”

There were a lot of take-aways from this book — even nuanced ones within the 10 sections. If I were to go through all of them, this post would be ridiculously long, so instead I want to focus on the two that stood out to me the most: master the context and know yourself.

Mastering the context is about understanding your place in the world. You have to understand the state of the world around you in order to enact change within the world and within yourself. You have to know what kind of leader the world is lacking to know what kind of leader you must be. And you must be willing to take risks instead of going along with a broken system, or you will never be able to help fix it.

The biggest point Bennis stresses about mastering the context is the difference between a manager and a leader. “[T]oo many CEOs become bosses, not leaders,” he says, “and it is the bosses who have gotten America into its current fix.”

Here are some of the key differences:

  • A manager administers while a leader innovates.
  • A manager is a copy while a leader is original.
  • A manager relies on control while a leader inspires trust.
  • A manager focuses on systems and structure while a leader focuses on people.

This got me thinking about my own leadership style. When I’m put in charge of people, do I work with them or do I try to control them? I’m guilty of being a “manager” a lot of the time, and this book inspired me to do better at focusing on leading others rather than being a boss over them.

The second point that hit me hard was Bennis’ views on knowing yourself. There are four lessons he offers to knowing yourself:

  • You are your own best teacher.
  • Accept responsibility. Blame no one.
  • You can learn anything you want to.
  • True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience.

Even though building relationships is an important factor of leadership, you alone are responsible for your own self-direction, Bennis says. No man is an island, and a good leader knows the difference between self-knowledge and total self-reliance. Trust yourself above all else, but never shut others out. Bennis sums it up well by saying: “Leaders learn from others, but they are not made by others.”

There are two ends of the spectrum: Some people are totally self-reliant and isolate themselves, and others are wholly reliant on others and can’t function on their own. There needs to be a balance, Bennis says. This is another key thing that’s easy for me to understand but hard for me to remember. I tend to be on the self-reliant end of the spectrum — I’m not great at taking others’ advice because I think I’ve got it all figured out. But any decisions I make on my own — especially in a leadership role — will affect others, and I need to be mindful that my place in the world isn’t limited to just me. As a leader, I need to be in tune with the people I’m leading, and I need to learn from them while still maintaining my role as a leader and being responsible for my choices.

Overall, I thought On Becoming a Leader was a great book. For anyone who wants a fairly easy read with a lot of good lessons and memorable quotes, I would highly recommend it.

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