Published for the first time in 1989, “On Becoming a Leader” is a classical and well-known leadership book by Warren Bennis. The book is a combination of Bennis’s own insights and experience on leadership, case studies and interviews with leaders and top executives from different backgrounds both from for-profit and nonprofit sectors.
From an editorial perspective, the book is not very well structured. The author refers to same arguments in almost every section of the book with many repetitions. The several lists of leaders “must-do”s or “must-be”s create confusion as there are so many of them and there is no explanation about how they are compiled.
Bennis starts his book by underlining that there is a need and lack of leadership. It is crucial for our lives since our quality of life depends on leaders. He puts an emphasis on especially national leaders. According to him, national leaders are important because they are responsible for effectiveness, they inspire and restore hope and they provide integrity to institutions. He also answers a very much-debated question in the nonprofit sector by saying that no matter how collaborative the organization is, there is still a need for a leader to coordinate members and make final decisions. The main characteristics of leaders are being visionary, innovative, and original.
Bennis gives a list of ingredients of leadership: guiding vision, passion, integrity, trust, curiosity and daring. A leader give inspiration and hope to other people, a leader is honest, dedicated, authentic and capable of working with others and learning with others. Leader embrace errors, experiment and take risks. He stresses that vision and character cannot be thought, the leaders should invent themselves. To become a leader, we need to know what we are made of and what we want to make of it. One of the ways of doing that is to speak or write your thoughts to be able to develop a sense of yourself and your role in the world. Trying new things, testing yourself, beliefs and principles, being a good explorer and a good listener, applauding yourself for the small successes are some of the tips that may help people to discover themselves. Therefore, self-knowledge is crucial and there are 4 lessons to increase it:
1- You are your own teacher.
2- Accept responsibility. Blame no one.
3- You can learn anything you want to learn.
4- True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience.
From a semantic perspective, if the term “leader” or “good leader” is defined according to the lists provided in the book, there is a missing explanation about how the author classifies a good leader and a bad leader. The leader is presented as an ethical person with high morality and character, in other words as a good person, yet the book does not discuss whether all successful leaders should fit into that criteria or not. Thus, all the good leader or good leadership examples remain purely subjective and argumentative such as the assessment of presidents. The assessment remains superficial and confusing and not enough explanatory.
A leader should be dedicated to continuous learning and should see mistakes as learning opportunities. The writer argues that learning at school is important but it is not enough itself. Education should be combined with practical experience and enriched through families, travelling, private life, friends and mentors. Overall, leaders learn how to learn from experience and how to analyze them in a constructive way. Leaders consciously seek the kinds of experience that will improve them.
The writer’s observation is that American organizational life is a left-brain culture: logical, analytical, technical, controlled, conservative and administrative. His suggestion is that American culture needs more right-brain qualities and leaders must combine administrative and imaginative skills such as empathy and encouraging diversity of opinion. The role of the leader is to figure out how you make diverse people and elements together. From an international perspective, the book mainly focuses on leadership and organizational culture in the USA. All the leaders interviewed are Americans and they succeeded in the USA therefore it is not entirely relevant for global audience.
Bennis states that leaders learn by leading in the face of obstacles. The obstacles may vary: working with a bad boss, crisis, adversity, etc. Facing with those obstacles and even failing can be a way for leaders to “invent themselves”.
Throughout the book, Bennis emphasizes that a leader should have character. The section titled “getting people on your side” gives a formula for leaders who want to make people follow them without the feeling of fear, obligation, and dependence. The four ingredients are constancy, congruity, reliability, and integrity. According to the author, if the members of a team believe in the mission of the organization or feel they also develop personally through the development of the organization, it is easier to work collaboratively.
It is important for individuals to have a willingness to “invent themselves”, but is that enough? Shouldn’t organizations enable people to develop their leadership capacities as well? As a response to that question, Bennis explains how “organizations can help-or hinder” in the ninth section of the book. There are three major forces working on the world today—technology, global interdependence, and demographics and values. The succeeding organizations have similar characteristics according to the Tom Peters’ Thriving in Chaos: less hierarchical structure, more autonomous units, an orientation toward high-value-added goods and service, quality controls, service controls, responsiveness, innovative speed, flexibility, highly trained workers and leaders at all levels rather than managers. Organizations should provide opportunities, invest in its employees, create mechanisms that will avoid burnout, and measure their effectiveness.
The book’s final section “forging for the future” summarizes the factors for the future:
-Leaders manage the dream.
-Leaders embrace error.
-Leaders encourage reflective backtalk.
-Leaders encourage dissent.
-Leaders possess the Nobel factor: optimism, faith, and hope.
-Leaders understand the Pygmalion effect in management.
-Leaders have a certain “touch.”
-Leaders see the long view.
-Leaders understand stakeholder symmetry.
-Leaders create strategic alliances.
The book is a good combination of leadership qualities and gives some tips about how to foster these qualities. It is not the best book though if you are not fond of self-help books.
by Derya Kaya