Many of you may have seen that we have lost a giant in the field of leadership development – Warren Bennis of the University of Southern California, where he had been a distinguished professor of business administration for over 30 years. Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic and now a professor at the Harvard Business School, once said “I look at Peter Drucker as the Father of Management and Warren Bennis as the Father of Leadership.” Bennis was an advisor to four presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford, and Ronald Reagan.
It was my privilege to count Dr. Bennis as a personal friend and mentor. During the decade of the 1980s, Warren helped me found the American Leadership Forum (ALF) and co-chaired the committee that developed the curriculum for ALF. During the 1990s while I was at Shell and worked with the MIT Organizational Learning Center, I worked with Bennis as he developed the Leadership Institute at USC.
During that time, I once asked, “Warren, I’ve read everything you’ve written about leadership and leadership development. If you had to pick the one capacity that you consider most crucial to effective leadership, what would that be?” He thought for a moment and responded, “Arched eyebrows” and then went on to say that the key to effective leadership is continuous learning. “All too often”, he said, “the senior leader begins to see her days of true learning as over – as something in the past. That’s the beginning of the end of her effective leadership.” He observed that the most successful leaders he studied all had an undying sense of wonder about them. They were always inquiring – always asking questions – walking the shop floor, asking the production worker a constant stream of questions, genuinely seeking to learn more – truly open to new ideas and new knowledge. There was never ever a sense of cynicism, a sense of being a “closed system”.
The lesson I learned from Warren that day inspired a critical element of Generon’s U-Process – one that is often overlooked: the process of “Letting Go” – letting go of old mindsets and belief systems. I’ve said that this is often the most difficult but most vital step in the process of discovering new knowledge when going through the U-Process. Without being filled with this sense of wonder and exploration, we can never be open to the truly new knowledge that is available to us.