The Passing of Burns and Bennis – gurus of leadership development

With the passing of James MacGregor Burns on July 15, age 96, and Warren G. Bennis on July 31, age 89, we lost the two eminent leadership scholars.  Burns taught at Williams College and Bennis at USC.

They were prolific writers, for the academy as well as the public, writing well into their 80’s.   Burns wrote more than 20 books and Bennis more than 30.   At 94, Burns’ published his final book “Fire and Light: How The Enlightenment Changed Our World.” Bennis published his memoir, “Still Surprised,” at 86.   So much for early retirement!

Each of them set out to correct long-held leadership theories and behaviors that they believed are counterproductive and ill-suited for our times.

In his 1978 seminal book “Leadership,” still in use as a textbook, Burns made the case for ‘transforming’ leadership.’

Transforming leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to high levels of motivation and morality.

That people can be lifted to their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership.

Truly great and creative leaders arouse people’s hopes and aspirations and expectations.

Burns contrasted power and leadership.

Power is different.  Power manipulates people as they are; leadership as they could be.  Power manages, leadership mobilizes.  Power impacts; leadership engages.   Power tends to corrupt, leadership to create.

As described by Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor, Burns contrasted transforming leaders, — “who seek to create change by helping followers become better versions of themselves” to transactional leaders, — “those who take a more short-term approach to achieving goals through negotiations and compromise.”   Transactional leaders are like those Adam Grant describes as “takers” and “matchers,” leaders who are looking for something in return.

Through this lens he was a keen observer of leaders, particularly presidents, winning the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his 1970 “Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom.” He continued to study the presidency through the Clinton/Gore years.  In his 1984 book, “The Crisis of Presidency” he lamented the lack of transforming leaders in politics as well as the rest of society.

Bennis will be remembered for challenging the ‘great man’ (or woman) theory of leadership, that leaders are born not made.  You are either a natural born leader or not.

In his signature book “On Becoming a Leader,” he described the path to leadership development.

Becoming a leader isn’t easy, just as becoming a doctor or a poet isn’t easy, and those who claim otherwise are fooling themselves.  But learning to lead is a lot easier than most of us think it is, because each of us contains the capacity for leadership.

As Peter Drucker was the guru of management studies, Bennis was identified by a Forbes columnist as “The ‘Dean’ of Leadership Gurus,” driven to fill what he observed as our leadership vacuum.

I wonder to what degree they were influenced by their military experience.  Burns served as an Army combat historian in the Pentagon during WWII, for which he received a Bronze Star.   At 19, Army lieutenant Bennis, was one of the youngest platoon leaders to serve in Europe arriving just as the battle of the Bulge was concluding.

They were engaged in the war with its tyrants and heros.   In a tribute to Bennis, Forbes columnist Rob Asghar wrote that his friend Bennis often spoke and wrote about ‘crucible experiences’ – “about how great leaders often were tested and refined in the searing heat of trials, setbacks and failures.”

Burns and Bennis have shaped how we think about leadership today.   In war and peace, they would contend that an effective leader is more than a boss.   Robert Greenleaf came along later to describe this as servant leadership.  Now the young Adam Grant has written “Give and Take,” about how successful leaders give forward, investing in their followers with no expectation of something in return.

Having read a few of their books I’m not sure whether Burns and Bennis believed that leaders, including presidents are better now than in the past.  However they offered a vision of what good leadership might be.  Their life’s work was to chart a course for leaders who can encourage and motivate all us to our better selves.  They never quit.  Both were active until their final days.

Strategy, Tactics and Drifting

Another leadership lesson from sailing –

Last week the owner of a used bookstore in Annapolis told me that she has just received her real estate license, with which she hopes to provide additional income to support her life’s work – the bookstore.  Selling real estate to support the bookstore is simply a tactic to achieve her strategic goal.

I was thinking about this later in the day while sailing my sloop JOY south on the Severn River past the U.S. Naval Academy into the Chesapeake Bay – where there is enough open water to sail any direction I chose.

Learning to make tactical moves, which may appear to be off coarse to reach a goal is one of the first lessons I learned when I took up sailing.   Unlike the ancient square-riggers that had to wait for favorable following winds, modern sailboats can sail in any direction, even into the wind.

Well almost.  Whether it’s a little 13’ Sunfish or a high-tech America’s Cup catamaran, a sailboat can get no closer to the wind than about 45 degrees.   However, with a series of 90-degree turns called tacking (thus tactical) it can reach a windward destination.

I’ve had people onboard who had a hard time understanding how the boat could sail into the wind, or why I would tack away from the destination in order to get there.

The same is true with leaders and their strategic and tactical objectives.    There are times when leaders must take a direction that seems off course in order to reach their ultimate goal.   The winds are not always favorable.   The old Irish blessing – “May the road rise up to meet you, May the wind always be at your back,” is a nice thought but unrealistic.   To reach our goals, destinations and aspirations, in life and leadership as well as sailing, we learn to navigate head winds rather than just wait for following winds to push us in the direction we would like to go.

When sailing windward I need to know when to tack back across the wind (‘coming about’) to stay on course.   Otherwise, I will never reach my destination.    Likewise when a tactic becomes strategy the ultimate goal is lost.  A strategic objective is an end; a tactic is means to an end rather than the end in itself.

All strategies, whether for personal or organizational direction require tactics.   That’s the difference between moving toward a goal and drifting.  Leaders who are driven by circumstances are drifting.    Waiting for favorable winds, as the ancient mariners knew all to well is unpredictable, dangerous and often disastrous.

And because the wind is constantly shifting I have to continually adjust the sails or change coarse in order to get where I want to go.    Commenting to me about a difficult circumstance, a man about my age said, ‘At this point in my life this is not what I expected.’  And then went on to describe how he is responding to his own head winds.   Life is seldom what we expected.

Of course, I can just drift – which occasionally I do when sailing.   Sometimes it’s fun to just let the wind take me wherever.   But sooner or later I have to use the wind to return home or reach my destination.  Drifting won’t get me there.   Strategy and tactics will.

I hope her real estate tactic works.   I really enjoy the used bookstore.

Leaders Seeking Partners Rather Than Followers

In his June 29, NY Times, tribute to the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Shmully Hecht reminds us that “He sought partners, not followers.”

And yet, as Hecht writes, he himself was, and is, a follower of Schneerson and his life’s work to bring people of different faiths together.

Therein lays an important distinction between partners and followers.   While Hecht describes himself as a follower, the rabbi considered him a partner.

In my various leadership assignments I was never comfortable with the typical leader/follower definition of my relationship to subordinates or parishioners.   I didn’t like the idea that without followers there are no leaders.   There was something unsettling about wondering who was following and supporting me and worrying who might be against me.

And while I follow with interest the thoughts and actions of many people.  I don’t care to be thought of as a passive follower waiting for direction.    Like Hecht, I too am a follower, but I join only with those who are engaged with causes to which I feel called.   I don’t support leaders simply because they are in charge, but because they are building a coalition to advance something worthwhile beyond themselves.

It seems to me that leaders who strive to build a personal following are on a path to self-centered rather than servant leadership.

Ira Chaleff has it right in his book “The Courageous Follower.” Leaders and followers should join together as partners around a purpose beyond themselves.

That’s what Rabbi Schneerson did.   “He sought partners, not followers.” He invited followers like Hecht to engage with him, to develop their own leadership opportunities and responsibilities.

Seeking partners was a caution against the hubris of thinking that people were following him rather than what he was about.   That is the potential pitfall of every leader: amplifying their importance beyond the cause to which they and others are committed.    It is the cause of leadership paranoia – “nobody is following me!”

Partnerships are an antidote to imperfect leaders.   There are no perfect leaders.   The leaders we admire most those who willing admit to their own shortcomings.    We join them not because they are perfect but because we sense that they are committed, with all their limitations, to something more important than themselves.

This is not to excuse unethical behavior or incompetence or to negate the need for leadership development.     It is only to recognize that effective leaders are more interested in building partnerships of mutual respect born of commitment to a common cause than simply attracting followers.

Who Would Fall On A Grenade For You?

On June 19, Marine Cpl. William “Kyle” Carpenter, age 24, will be presented the Congressional Medal of Honor for falling on a grenade in Afghanistan in November, 2010, to protect and save a fellow marine.

What has this to do with leadership?  A lot, says Simon Sinek in his recent Ted Talk “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.”

Cpl. Carpenter was severely wounded, sustaining a depressed skull, a collapsed right lung, multiple facial fractures, the loss of a third of his lower jaw and fragment injuries to his arms and legs.

Yet according to the report, out of respect for his comrades who died in combat he is reluctant to receive and display the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.

Back to Sinek – a young thought leader worth following.

In his Ted Talk he tells of another Medal of Honor recipient from Afghanistan and observes –

“In the military they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so others may gain.”

“In business,” by contrast, “we give bonuses to people who sacrifice others that they may gain.”

Two questions come to mind from Cpl. Carpenter’s story and Sinek’s talk.

Who would fall on a grenade for you?” That’s a question of community and friendship.

Where do you feel safe?  Who are the people who will protect you from the grenades, the danger surrounding you?   Good leaders make us feel safe.

And then, “For whom would you fall on a grenade?” That is a personal values question. 

These are leadership as well as personal questions.  Who do we follow and who is following us?

“I know many people at the senior levels of organizations, Sinek says, “who are absolutely not leaders.   They are authorities and we do what they say because they have authority over us but we would not follow them.”

By contrast, “I know may people at the lower level of organizations who have no authority and they are absolutely leaders because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them and to the right of them.  This is what a leader is.”

Since Cpl. Carpenter is self-conscious about receiving the Medal of Honor he probably would be even less inclined to consider himself a leader.    He would likely say that he was simply doing what others in his unit would have done for him.

This Memorial Day weekend is a good time to learn from those we honor.

They took an oath of “unconditional liability” so that their comrades and we may live in a safe place.

Run Toward the Chaos – a message for 2014 graduates

Graduation speeches are often a barometer of the times and a forecast of the future.

Chaos is what Navy Chaplain Brian Weigelt told the 2014 graduates of his alma mater, MidAmerica Nazarene University they should expect in their future.

From his experience as a spiritual guide to Marines in the Iraq War and his role as a behind-the-scenes advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, Commander Weigelt made three observations about the chaos that will affect their aspirations.

  1. Chaos is the new normal.
  2. Whatever their future vocations, to lead a rewarding life and change the world for the better, graduates should run toward rather than away from the chaos.
  3. And regardless of their skills, graduates need inner spiritual resources to keep from being crushed by the chaos.

He reminded the graduates “we live in a chaos-filled world.”

In spite of their wish for “peaceful stability,” he warned, “chaos seems to sneak in unannounced, and certainly uninvited. Sometimes this chaos is the result of disasters completely beyond human control. Tornadoes, tsunamis, forest fires, floods, earthquakes and landslides, to name a few, never happen at convenient times. Violent conflicts and wars erupt even though there is such a terrible human cost. The clash of values within societies results in disagreements about what is right and what is wrong, leaving a trail of confusion and bitterness. Cynicism and indifference infect institutions and industries, limiting the good that could be accomplished. And even in our most personal relationships the conflicts that occur can create intense frustration. We live in a chaos filled world.”

To live a fulfilled life whatever their vocation graduates should “run toward the sounds of the chaos.”

This is counterintuitive since, as he said, we are inclined to “seek personal comfort when chaos rages.”

He went on to comment on what he sees at the Nation’s Capitol.

“From where I live and work in Washington, DC, it seems to me that there are plenty of people willing to comment on the chaos, contributing more noise to the shouting match. And sadly, all too many Christians would rather participate in the rhetoric rather than engage with those who suffer as a result of the chaos. If we all ran toward the sounds of chaos in order to silence the chaos in individual lives rather than seek our own comfort, whether at work, in the community, or the world—we would all be contributing to something much greater than ourselves.”

He warned the graduates that without inner spiritual resources, the “chaos will crush you.”

“If you run toward the sounds of chaos rather than away from them, you will encounter circumstances and situations that will destroy you. Sometimes the chaos is so complex, so inscrutable, you will be crushed by despair, feeling as hopeless as everyone else. Sometimes the chaos is so impenetrable you will come to the conclusion that nothing can be done, and rather than being crushed by disappointment, you will develop a cold indifference to the plight of those around you and give your heart over to cynicism. Either way, you will be destroyed. The idealism of many Marines has been destroyed in war. The idealism of many humanitarian aid workers has been destroyed in tragedy. The chaos will destroy you.”

These MidAmerica graduates, he said, are uniquely equipped and empowered to make a difference in a chaotic world.

“Most of your peers will be primarily concerned with the pursuit of happiness and comfort. But you are different. You won’t pursue every possible means to insulate yourself from the mayhem that is everywhere.

You will not run toward the chaos to add to the noise, or to make a name for yourself.

You will go with God trusting in his love, his power, and his ultimate authority.”

Is the message for 2014 graduates pessimistic?    Will their dreams become nightmares, their idealism turn to cynicism?

Not necessarily, but from his perspective Chaplain Weigelt knows that the world 2014 graduates face is not a warm, protective incubator for new life and creative ideas.

But with firmly held spiritual values he believes this class of graduates will flourish in the midst of and in spite of the chaos.

Chaplain Weigelt was awarded a Doctor of Divinity at the graduation ceremony.   His manuscript is available upon request –

Graphene On The Horizon

During a recent leadership group meeting in Washington, DC, Gene Gabbard responded to my question:  what is the most significant development on the horizon that will affect or change our lives?

He answered in one word – graphene!

I had not heard of it, nor had anyone else.    He described it as a newly developed or discovered material that has the potential to change everything we touch from our clothes to our computers.   I did a little research and so was somewhat prepared for the article on graphene that appeared this week in the New York Times.

Bend It, Charge It, Dunk It: Graphene, the Material of Tomorrow

And then I came upon an April 16 announcement from the Outsider Club.

Graphene is the future. Plain and simple. It’s 200 times stronger than steel, thinner than a sheet of paper, and more conductive than copper.

I learned form the NY Times article that graphehe is a form of carbon only a single atom thick.  One ounce could cover 28 football fields.    While it was discovered a decade ago, in 2010 two physicists at the University of Manchester were awarded the Nobel Prize for their experiments with it.

In 2012, the American Chemical Society said that advancements in graphene were leading to touch-screen electronics that “could make cellphones as thin as a piece of paper and foldable enough to slip into a pocket.

This is remarkable stuff.    It is already here and it will change the future.

Which brings me to the responsibility of servant leaders to prepare followers for the future.   That’s not predicting the future.   As Peter Drucker wrote:

“Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.”

Dick Schubert, associate of the late Peter Drucker remembers that Drucker would insist that he could not predict the future, he could only observe trends and tell where things are headed.

Drucker also said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”

While we don’t expect our leaders to be futurists, we do expect them to be aware of what’s going on and given the trends bring us together to create a better tomorrow.

Which makes me wonder how many other “graphene” like inventions, or movements are on the horizon that will provide the opportunity, and the need, to create our preferred future.

A 10-Point Listening Test for Leaders

A continuation of the the thread on servant leadership with Robert K. Greenleaf’s observation that active listening is single most important skill for those who would be servant leaders.

When leaders listen well both they and their followers are changed for the better.   Listening leaders become more aware of and responsive to those around them.  And followers, knowing that they are understood, are motivated to serve well.

Organizational culture improves when people know that their thoughts and feelings are heard and respected.

Since we are familiar with hearing tests, why not a listening test?

Here’s my 10-point test.   I’ve had some help with this from my sister Lois Wagner, a nurse who recently retired from teaching community mental health at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.   She recalled being challenged by one of her daughters.

“I remember one of my girls when she was a teenager saying to me, ‘mom you’re not listening’ and my responding with ‘I heard everything you said’ and she said, ‘Yes, but you’re not listening.’  That started me on this quest to become a better listener.  Even though we teach it and advocate listening skills, it is an art and skill that needs continual practice.”

You will have a clue about how well you are listening by asking yourself these questions after a conversation.

  1. Who did the most talking?
  2. What, if anything, got in your way of listening?
  3. Did you ask questions?  What kind?
  4. Did you notice anything about posture, gestures or other physical expressions?
  5. What did you learn about the other person – other than what was said?
  6. Are you aware of how the other person was feeling?
  7. Were you more aware of what was said than how it was said?
  8. Did the other person feel understood?
  9. Were there moments of silence?  How comfortable were each of you with those?
  10. Did your mind wander (take little trips) during the conversation.

I went over this list after a recent extended two-hour conversation.    I could have done better!

On Becoming A Servant Leader

In the “The Servant as Leader,” one of Robert Greenleaf’s original essays, he wrote about the leader of “a large, important and difficult-to-administer public institution,” who was unhappy with the way things were going.

He took the unusual step of not reading newspapers or listening to news broadcasts for three months, depending entirely upon what he heard from those around him to know what was going on.

As Greenleaf tells it, “In three months his administrative problems were resolved.”

It sounds simple, and it is.   Yet it is difficult.   Greenleaf asked, “Why is there so little listening?” and then suggested that the path to servant leadership is “through the long arduous discipline of learning to listen.”

In his little book, “The Art of Listening in a Healing Way,” James Miller asks, “When was the first time you felt really listened to?”  and then reminds us of the difference between hearing and listening.

Listening is paying attention to what is seen, non-verbal communication, as well as what is heard – the sound and meaning of words.

Miller writes that when you really listen to what someone is saying you rely on your eyes as much as your ears – how the speaker looks and moves.

He claims that only a third of the message comes from what the ear can pick up – the tone of voice, the rhythm of the words, and the rate of speaking.

Active listening is anything but passive.   It takes discipline, time and concentration.

And it is not necessarily silence.   A good listener knows when to respond and to ask appropriate questions without taking over the conversation.

Much of what is required for listening is lost with our constant e-mailing, texting, tweeting, Facebook and other electronic instant communications.

Even as we hear and read more we listen less.   We have more information, but less understanding of one another.

If Greenleaf were alive today I think he would tell us the same thing as what I heard him say over 30 years ago: that listening is a way to become an effective servant leader.

As much as he would recognize the value, if not importance of email, social media and even phone conversations, he would tell us that there comes a time to shut it down, turn it off, take messages and learn to listen.

He might say that in a conversation interrupted by phone, text and email messages the other person doesn’t feel listened to nor understood.

I’m sure that he would agree with the Storycorps theme that “listening is an act of love.”

How to tell a servant leader from a non-servant leader

Lest the negative image of CEO’s be overstated – there are good servant CEO’s among us – some of them my close associates and friends.    One the best is Bob Sloan who commented to the blog last week and responded further to my question about how to tell a servant leader from a non-servant leader.

Bob recently retired after 27 years of distinguished service as CEO of Washington’s Sibley Hospital.  He has gone on to serve as the President and CEO of the Jane Bancroft Robinson Foundation to support projects that break the cycle of poverty in Washington, DC.    In 2013, he received the “O” award, the highest honor from his alma mater, Olivet Nazarene University.

He described the effect of non-servant bosses in his early life.

“I worked for two CEO’s in my career that had the characteristics that you describe in some of your writings.  Both CEO’s suffered from a lack of confidence and intimidated those who served with them.  They were harsh, critical, demanding and made people feel insecure which created turnover in the organization.

Their leadership certainly had a negative impact on the organization.”

And then he reflected on the servant leaders who set an example for his own career.

“I also served with three outstanding leaders who were smart, hard working, committed, humble and loyal to their subordinates.  As a consequence those who served with them worked extra hard just so they would not disappoint or let their leader down.  The morale in the organization was very high in each of the organizations with these leaders.

I was able to pattern my leadership after the ones that I admired and I was able to avoid bad habits because of what I learned under domineering leaders.  I was very aware of the characteristics of both styles of leadership.”

In his writings on servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf wrote that servant leaders are known not so much by what they do as the effect they have on their followers.

The best test,” of servant leadership, he wrote, “and difficult to administer, is this:

Do those served grow as persons: Do they, while being served become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived.”

Bob Sloan’s personal experience confirms Greenleaf’s observations.   Servant and non-servant leaders come in many different forms and with a variety of styles.   But one thing is constant – the effect they have on others.

The followers of non-servant leaders flounder while the followers of servant leaders flourish.

On Having the Right Stuff for Leadership

Leadership development emerged as a major theme, if not an industry after my seminary days in the early ‘60’s.   Back then nearly all we heard about was the SNL – the ‘strong natural leader.’   Leaders, we were led to believe, were born, not made.

Like many others of my so-called ‘silent generation’ (between the WWII ‘greatest generation’ and the Boomers) I began my career feeling inadequate compared to the larger-than-life iconic leaders we were tempted to emulate.

That’s a tough feeling to shake – never sure you were born with the right stuff.

Leadership development advocates turned that around.   Leaders are made, not born, claimed Warren Bennis in his book, “On Becoming A Leader.” Leadership, he taught, is a skill to be mastered.   Some have gone so far as to claim that everyone is or can become a leader.

The problem is that the dominant leadership image or model was, and remains to a large extent, an authoritative, self-centered CEO.

It was not until the early ‘70’ that we began to hear about another leadership model.   In “The Servant as Leader,” Robert Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive wrote about the need for a more humane, if not effective corporate leader—a servant leader rather than the ubiquitous command and control CEO leaders among us.

At first, leadership development studies were resisted in the faith community since some clergy leaders were inclined to behave like self-serving, autocratic CEOs rather than the servant example in their own traditions.

Which brings me to a February 27, report from the Catholic News Service, in which Pope Francis is quoted as saying that “bishops should act not like ambitious corporate executives, but humble evangelists and men of prayer, willing to sacrifice everything for their flocks.”

He went on to say, “We don’t need a manager, the CEO of a business, nor someone who shares our pettiness or low aspirations.”

His complaint is that the stereotypical self-serving CEO model of leadership is not working for clergy leaders.

In fact, that kind of leadership is not working anywhere – in business, the military, government, politics, or the public sector.

That’s what Robert Greenleaf was saying.

And that’s what Barbara Kellerman wrote about in her 2012 book, “The End of Leadership.”  Unfortunately, most CEO’s, she wrote, are “neither effective nor ethical.”

Servant leaders are needed as much in the corporate world as in faith communities.

I’m not sure that everyone can be or should even aspire to be a positional leader.

However, to the degree that anyone can serve, then perhaps anyone can lead.