Response to “On Becoming a Leader” by Warren Bennis

Leadership is something you are born with, it cannot be taught. This is not one of the opinions Warren Bennis shares in his book, entitled On Becoming a Leader. He explicitly states that he believes “true leaders are not born, but made, and usually self-made” (35). Implicit in this statement is the purpose of Bennis’ book: to not only define, but to help the reader become, a leader. The book is separated into chapters, each with its own purpose or lesson, from knowing oneself to knowing the world. Within the chapters, Bennis uses a plethora of leadership examples to illustrate his points, from presidents to other authors. He begins the book with a look at the context of our current (2009) situation economically and in regards to leadership.

            According to Bennis, America has been moving downhill for the last few decades. Going as far back as the eighties, Bennis writes about the call for strong leadership that has remained unanswered. Bennis focuses on presidents at first, and then other government agencies, like the CIA, FBI, and FEMA. His writing is hopeful about the presidency of Obama, but it is unknown whether or not Bennis would consider the streak of weak leadership broken if the book were written today. He tells of the legacy that the lack of leadership has left, from presidential scandals like Watergate and Clinton’s allegations to our failures during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. These failures and many more, like the 2008 financial crisis, Bennis blames on lack of good leadership. Specifically with the 2008 crisis, Bennis blames short-term mindsets, namely funding short-term projects as opposed to real, innovative projects. Thus, the book began by pointing out what a lack of leadership will do to a country. After this introduction, Bennis began to reflect on what leadership entails.

            The rest of the book is dedicated to defining and explaining what a leader is and how to become one. According to Bennis, a leader must have a guiding vision or purpose; a passion for the work he is doing; integrity, including self-knowledge, honesty, and maturity; trust; curiosity; and courage. Going into detail on each aspect, Bennis used businessmen such as the former CEO of Apple, John Sculley, and presidents including JFK and FDR as examples of true leaders that embody these ideals. Next, the author describes the difference between leaders and managers, namely that a manager is a good person, but a leader embodies an almost heroic persona through originality and idealism. The next lessons offered by Bennis each have a chapter dedicated to themselves.

            The most prominent remaining lessons are: knowing yourself, knowing the world, operating on instinct, and getting people on your side. In regards to knowing yourself, Bennis believes that the best person to teach somebody leadership is himself, as leadership is a very personal subject to learn. He also speaks of accepting responsibility, perseverance, and reflection as important parts of knowing yourself. In order to know the world, Bennis stresses the importance of anticipation, listening, and avid participation. A large part of knowing the world is also taking advantage of teachers. These two lessons were related in that they each involved the leader and nobody else insomuch as the leader must be aware of himself and his environment.

Less straightforward, Bennis’ analysis of operating on instinct is more of an analysis on thinking. He stresses the importance of being able to think with both the left and right sides of the brain if one wants to become a great leader. He also references the Organization Man, which was a very interesting allusion to a piece of writing that focuses on the tendency to become so incorporated into the system that somebody essentially loses himself, doing what he is told without questioning authority (96). The organization man is very involved and a great worker, but is much more of a manager, to incorporate Bennis’ language, than a leader. Earlier in the book, Bennis used a fictitious example to demonstrate the difference between a good worker and leader in which a man who wished to work his way up the company essentially became an “organization man” of sorts. The worker, referred to as “Ed,” worked hard, embraced the company, and always did what was expected, but was denied the job as CEO on account that he did not embody all of the ideals of a leader (20-26). It was very interesting to read such an example then have the reference seen in another form later in the book. It solidified the importance of individuality, purpose, courage, and passion in a leader’s life. Ed did not embody these ideals.

As one of his last lessons, Bennis speaks about getting people on your side, which was a chapter that taught the lesson reiterated many times throughout the course thus far: happier workers are better workers. He writes that a leader must be involved with those under him daily, without offending or alienating anybody. He again stresses the importance of integrity in this section; a leader should honor his promises and live as he wants his constituents to. Many of his other beliefs, in addition to several parts of these lessons, seem repetitive as with participation and perseverance, but Bennis uses different examples and language to fully ingrain the idea of what it means to embody these ideals into the reader’s mind.

            The other lessons of the book, although important, were relatively repetitive, included within, or did not establish themselves as much as the four previously mentioned. It is for this reason that the book was not as enjoyable as it could have been. The examples and content were all well-done and important, but Bennis became monotonous in his structure when the lessons began to overlap and through his use of similar, and perhaps excessive, examples. Several times, Bennis would introduce a lesson, and then spend the next two pages on examples to illustrate how these lessons can be used in the real world, and many of these were technical business stories, though a few were genuinely inspiring. One such inspiring example was incorporated into a chapter about leading through chaos. Bennis includes a story about Mayor Giuliani of New York City and his response to 9/11; the mayor helped lead a resilient city, even going so far as to walk brides who lost their fathers down the aisles on their wedding days (146). Another example that resonated with me as a reader was a quote by Carlos Casteneda on getting involved: “The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or curse” (130). Like the story about Mayor Giuliani, this quote did a good job of inspiring me as a reader to apply myself in a motivated manner, to take up life’s challenges. Despite certain stories like this, the structure over hundreds of pages made the book rather dry. Through his attempt to define leadership and provide practical examples academically, the structure reads as less of a book and more of an essay or dissertation of sorts. In the end, the book is a very good academic work of exploring leadership, but it is its academic nature that hinders its value as an all-around worthwhile book. 

Rise to the Top: Internship/CoOp Basics

On Friday, I attended the “Internship/CoOp basics” seminar in Bartley Hall as my Track 3 requirement for the Backpack to Briefcase program. The speakers were Christine DellaPenna, Beth Cahill, and a student named Alyssa. The presentation consisted of a powerpoint comprised of information regarding Villanova’s internship and CoOp programs. It began with an emergence into the topic of why students may want to participate in the program. Benefits other than earning money include working in the real world of business, putting theory into practice, focusing goals, networking, and earning credit.

Next, the speakers gave a summary on all of the programs available. Internships can take place during the semester or the summer, with an overwhelming number of opportunities to choose from. CoOps take place during the school year, last six months, and can be more beneficial than internships due to more credit being awarded and a longer, more realistic experience. Lastly, the presentation included externship and leadership programs. These are typically shorter and last a week or weekend; they include programs with mock interviews, resume help, and assistance with other business skills. These, due to their lack of length, cannot be used for free-elective credit like the other programs.

All in all, this experience was very enlightening. Having a brother at Villanova who had participated in the internship program over the summer, I decided to see what I could learn and what opportunities could be available to me. I was unaware of what a CoOp or leadership program entailed or the span of all of the opportunities that are available. Villanova has done a great job of offering opportunities to students who wish to sample a possible future career path while still in school. Even more astonishing is the fact that 57% of employers offer full-time jobs to their interns. The Villanova Clay Center can essentially find students a career while earning them credit in school, money in their pockets, and experience in their field. It was astonishing to learn how vast and effective the program can be.