Life Motivations: Why Do We Become Leaders?

Warren Bennis

I've often asked myself how a kid from a blue-collar family like mine ever got to work with so many accomplished people in such intellectually stimulating places. Looking back, I realize that inglorious factors drove my career: an aching desire to make something of myself; the peculiar blessing of a tendency to doubt my worth; simple hard work; those proverbial 10,000 hours of practice; and my own share of good fortune, which I would not cast to the wind.

My raw motivation came from a resolve to avoid the fate of my father, who spent much of his life trapped in numbing jobs. I was seven when he lost his last real job, as a shipping clerk. Then came his desperate attempts to support our family, laboring as a process server, loading illegal booze for the New Jersey mob, opening and then shutting unsuccessful malt shops, and toiling for his nephew in a dust-filled attic workshop.

Whatever our motivations, each of us responds to the roles life offers us, ambushing good fortune, we hope, whenever it presents itself. My first notable position was as an officer in the U.S. Army in 1944. I was surprised by what life offered an awkward teen such as myself—the chance to serve as a second lieutenant fighting in the Battle of the Bulge at the tender age of 19.

Good public policy gave me my next boost: The GI Bill swung the doors of college open to veterans, allowing me to attend Antioch College where I had the good fortune to meet my greatest mentor, Doug McGregor, then Antioch’s president, who became the father of organizational development. Doug convinced me that my father’s path need not be my own, and that a lucky person could live the life of the mind!

One of Doug’s remarkable gifts was persuasion: He talked MIT into accepting me into its graduate program in economics—no easy feat, given my meager math skills. My angst about "making it" drove me to work feverishly, even in a venue where one Nobel laureate economist considered me the class’s academic caboose.

I attained tenure and the chance to enjoy the intellectual Eden that was postwar Cambridge, where we studied what sorts of social organizations could banish the political and human horrors of World War II. Yet leaving Eden would be seminal too: Assignments in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Calcutta, India, gave me an unforgettable introduction to the global economy.

Feeling a need to put my theories of leadership into practice, I next accepted roles as provost at SUNY/Buffalo during the turbulent 1960s/early 1970s, and then as president of the University of Cincinnati. I made some contributions, learned fresh lessons—and realized that I was better suited to counsel great leaders than to be one. So I came home, geographically and emotionally, to spend the most productive years of my life writing and teaching at USC.

Luck begets luck: Like the rich getting richer, those with early successes are rewarded with expanding opportunities. After I discovered what I felt passionate about—leadership, change, and creative collaboration—people began leaning close to hear my thoughts on those subjects. Once that begins to happen, something miraculous occurs: you discover that you have become a name, a brand. And all you did was work hard, get lucky, and stay alive—and try to avoid your father’s fate.

In my bones, I’ve always known how important leadership was and is. The very quality of our lives depends on the quality of leadership—and the quality of the organizations and products they create. We need and seek honest, competent leaders in every area of our lives—government, business, industry, education. We are social animals, and our packs need leaders. Good or bad, they shape our destinies. I sense that leadership is something many people aspire to, whatever role they actually play in life, because authentic leadership elevates whatever organization it is practiced in.

I find that sooner or later in life, all leaders undergo a crucible—a transformative experience that either prepares them to lead or cultivates in them an adaptive capacity—the key attribute for success. In my collaboration with Noel Tichy, I learned that a leader’s life is the summation of the leader’s judgment calls—making good judgment calls is the primary job of a leader. With good judgment, little else matters. Without good judgment, nothing else matters. And in collaboration with Jim O’Toole and Dan Goleman, I learned that candor is essential for organizational health and that transparency is inevitable in the age of the Internet.

The single most important thing I’ve done at USC over the past 15 years is to co-create and co-teach a course on leadership with Steve Sample. We work hard to make the course a rich, active experience. Students don’t just study leadership—they often become leaders in their own right by forming groups, carrying out leadership-related projects, and producing something enduring.

No matter how you sugarcoat it, aging forces you to confront the essential tragedy of our species—being conscious of our own mortality. My strategy for dealing with this unsettling reality is not denial but avoidance. I rarely think about death—or aging. Why? I’m lucky. I have a rich, rewarding life to focus on and lose myself in. I have the option of working full time until I choose not to. I spend time almost every day with students who are young enough to be my grandchildren. They expose me to new words, ideas, and music. I also work hard at keeping well enough to perform the activities that age can erode.

This is anything but the winter of my discontent. To an astonishing degree, it has been a season of extravagant and unexpected recognition, as colleagues and friends have gone to extraordinary lengths to acknowledge what I have tried to do over the past 60 years. At one point in a recognition event, Jim O’Toole jumped up and said, "If Peter Drucker is the father of management, Warren Bennis is the father of leadership." I was moved to tears.

First Published in Leadership Excellence 8/2010.