Smart People, Big Ideas

By: Emily Haggstrom Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Business merage

History has amassed a collection of influential leaders. These leaders secured a following of people who accepted their principles and organized through their guidance. They have defined cultures and shaped generations of people. Leaders often exude passion, charisma, and poise, but the defining qualities of a leader seem to be unmistakably intangible. These leaders have become examples of how business executives and government officials operate: by emulating the qualities they feel should be represented and exhibited to achieve bottom line results.

There have been many debates waged about whether leaders are born or made, and while most people continue to debate this theory, one man has engineered the topic of leadership into a science. "The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born-that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born," Warren Bennis has said.

Bennis, an accomplished writer of over 30 books on leadership development, a professor, consultant, and speaker to some of the greatest leaders in U.S. history, believes that leaders are shaped by the opportunities and trials that life has imbued on them. And while there are negative leaders, which Bennis describes as "destructive achievers," most leaders are defined by passion, purpose, curiosity, and the adaptive capacity to create cultural candor within the organizations they lead. Their true mark as leaders is their ability to surround themselves with great people and the ability to make the right strategic decisions in business. "Without your eyebrows raised, without curiosity, without awareness of possible disruptive inflection points, and unless you keep an eye out and learn how to adapt, leaders will fail," said Bennis.

Leaders should bring out the best in their groups by accentuating individual talents, realizing people’s full potential, and ensuring safety, satisfaction, and a collective desire by the group to belong. Great leaders inspire collaboration from their groups to achieve the organization’s full potential; they are quantified by the results they produce and the respect that they garner. "A culture of candor is what creates organizations that don’t get into trouble; truth speaks to power," said Bennis.

He was slated to be a great leader at 19 after requesting and then being chosen to command a platoon as a second lieutenant in World War II. "There is an underemphasized importance of what it means to put on a uniform which in itself is a set of expectations of what others think of you and what you think of yourself; it is such a powerful factor in leadership," said Bennis. It was during this time that he learned the significance of his role and the power that came with it when he truly possessed that role. By putting on his uniform and choosing to be a leader to his platoon, Bennis was awarded the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his valiant efforts. "Nobody who has to make choices that result in the deaths of others takes leadership lightly," said Bennis.

After the war, he studied under Douglas McGregor, his mentor, who initiated Bennis’ thoughts on the human condition and the common element such as rules and policies to create enlightened bureaucracy that takes into account equally the human condition and the bottom line. "I’ve continued to believe this, and I have continued to carry on Doug’s tradition ever since," said Bennis.

The guru’s defining leadership moment was during a speech at Harvard when one of the school’s deans asked him if he loved being president of the University of Cincinnati. He described the moment as a long pause that hit him straight to his core. "Everything went silent and I could hear my heartbeat," said Bennis; all he could reply was that he didn’t know. It was on the flight home when he realized that he didn’t love what he was doing and he decided to return to teaching.

Bennis describes this transition as finally understanding the difference between his ambition and his calling. "The difference between a good leader and a great leader is the amount of passion they have for their role," said Bennis. "Leaders act with a sense of purpose; they are eternal optimists." Because of this transition, Bennis was inspired again. Through his new role, he regained the charisma and the candor that had laid dormant until he sought the role that brought forth his defining characteristic leadership qualities. "We have so many possible selves we can choose from, once we designate roles for ourselves," said Bennis.

It is no surprise that after 50 years, Bennis remains one of the foremost thought leaders on this subject, consulting presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan along with senior executives from Fortune 500 companies across the nation. At the age of 87, Bennis continues to speak, although now it is from the comfort of his home. As the years progress, he continues to fine tune his philosophies no matter how banal they may seem, in an effort to continue a legacy that has not only shaped him, but defined him as a person.

The Six Characteristics of Leadership

In most instances of dramatic leadership, Bennis believes there are six characteristics of a leader: integrity, dedication, magnanimity, humility, openness, and creativity. By embodying these characteristics, great leaders can establish trust, purpose, and help drive results from their followers.


Integrity means alignment of words and actions with inner values. It means sticking to these values even when an alternative path may be easier or more advantageous. A leader with integrity can be trusted and will be admired for sticking to strong values. They also act as a powerful model for people to copy, thus building an entire organization with powerful and effective cultural values.


Dedication means spending whatever time and energy on a task that is required to get the job done, rather than giving it whatever time is available. The work of most leadership positions is not something to do if time permits. It means giving one’s whole self to the task, dedicating one’s self to success and to leading others.


A magnanimous person gives credit where it is due. It also means being gracious in defeat and allowing others who are defeated to retain their dignity. Magnanimity in leadership includes crediting people with success and accepting personal responsibility for failures.


Humility is the opposite of arrogance and narcissism. It means a leader recognizes that you are not inherently superior to others, and consequently, others are not superior to them. It does not mean diminishing one’s self, nor does it mean exalting one’s self. Humble leaders do not debase themselves, neither falsely nor due to low self-esteem. They simply recognize all people as equal in value and know that their position does not make them a god.


Openness means being able to listen to ideas that are outside one's current mental models, being able to suspend judgment until after one has heard someone else's ideas. An open leader listens to their people without trying to shut them down early, which at least demonstrates care and builds trust. Openness also treats other ideas as potentially better than one's own ideas. In the uncertain world of new territory, being able to openly consider alternatives is an important skill.


Creativity means thinking differently, being able to get outside the box and take a new and different viewpoint on things. For a leader to be able to see a new future towards which they will lead their followers, creativity provides the ability to think differently and see things that others have not seen, and thus giving reason for followers to follow.