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Saturday
Aug022014

Warren Bennis (1925-2014) - A Personal Remembrance

My last living mentor, Warren Bennis died on 7/31 at the age of 89 from an age related illness.  Warren was not just admired and respected; he was beloved.  I think it was because within two minutes of meeting him you got this feeling that you could trust him to never hurt you. That's a rare quality in this world and I remember him appearing pleased to be characterized that way.

I first met Warren in 2005 when I was attending one of his classes at USC in a course entitled, "The Art and Adventure or Leadership," that he co-led with then college President, Steven Sample. I was a guest of the guest presenter, Christopher Gergen, CEO of Forward Impact and Co-Author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.

During the class I asked a few evocative questions that seemed to help deepen the discussion and that Warren appeared to approve of.  Towards the end of the class he looked at everyone and said, "This was our best meeting so far this year." He then looked over at me and invited me to join the students and him for pizza and further discussion.  That was the beginning of my intellectual and emotional love affair with him.

Warren has been described as a "deep listener" by David Gergen, another of the people he mentored.  He was indeed a very good listener and I wrote about one of the most important things he taught me in a dedication of my book, "Just Listen," to Warren namely: "When you deeply listen and get where people are really coming from, and then care about them when you're there, they're more likely to let you take them to where you want them to go."  Another of Warren’s quintessential sayings that stays with me was, “Boredom occurs when I fail to make the other person interesting.”

A few years ago I was having breakfast with Warren and as always he pressed for me to talk and for him to listen.  I told him, “Warren you are the one that is actually more interesting, so you’re going to talk.” He looked at me a little miffed and then began to open up about things he felt deeply and personally passionate about.  In fact he became so enthused that he inadvertently spit into my food. 

When that happened, he saw it and he saw that I saw it and he said, “Mark, I think I just sprayed your food.”  I told him it was okay and not a problem.

When I returned to my office I sent him an email saying, “Warren, when people find out that you are my mentor, they ask me what that is like.  I tell them that every time I am with you, I try to absorb you into my DNA and I think that your spraying my food today helped.”

In recent years I have gotten into the habit of spontaneously crying when I am with Warren for at least 25% of the time I would visit him.  We would keep our conversations going without missing a beat, although he clearly noticed.

Then on one occasion I said to him, “Warren, I have a confession to make.  I’ve been using you.”  Like many highly influential people, being used was something Warren disliked and he looked at me irked, but then knew I was going to say something odd to follow up.

I told him: “Every time I’m with you I realize and appreciate not only how much you mean to me (and that he was getting older and increasingly more affected by illness), but I feel that you are healing feelings of unworthiness, uninterestingness, less-than-ness in me and when I feel that healing, I cry with relief at feeling more whole.”

Warren then looked at me, put his hand on his chin and delivered his verdict: “That’s not a bad way to use me Mark.”

Some years ago I was having lunch with Warren and Peter Whybrow, Chairman of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry. Towards the end of the meal Warren looked up with a pained expression on his face.  He said, “I’ve been in the field of leadership for more than fifty years.  Some will even say that I started it and yet, leaders are worse than ever.  Maybe I didn’t do such a great job.”

That greatly bothered me.  After I returned to my office I emailed Warren, “You have more control over trying and quitting than you do over the results.  Because you never gave up, I know that the world is much better for your having been in it.  I know that because I am much better for your being in my life.”

Years ago I attended a tribute to Warren at USC and again many wonderful and loving things were said about him by close longtime friends including the late Sidney Harmon and Betsy Myers, a mentee and protege of Warren's and a renowned leadership expert herself. At the conclusion of the comments Warren went to the podium and in his charming, ironic and playful manner said: "One of the great things about hearing so many nice things about you, is that it gives you something to live up to."

I think it's safe to say that you more than lived up to any and everything that people have said about you and will continue to say about you.

Warren, thank you for causing me and so many others to feel interesting and for everything you did to make the world a better place.

We will carry on your mission to study, identify and develop the best leaders possible.

Rest in peace my dear friend.

Know that you were beloved by many and how much they and I will miss you.

Reader Comments (1)

Warren Bennis was an inspiration and role model to many. He made many contributions reaching around the globe. His works on leadership influenced many throughout the years in all industries and disciplines. Thank you Warren!

August 4, 2014 | Registered CommenterRichard Stephen Janis
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