Mackay: Bemis set example for being a strong leader

Warren Bennis was synonymous with leadership.

Unfortunately, we lost Warren earlier this month, but his leadership lessons and principles will live on for years. He wrote more than 30 books on leadership, including his landmark work, “On Becoming a Leader.” He advised Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Ford and Reagan.

I got to know him during his 30 years at the University of Southern California, where he was a distinguished professor of Business Administration and headed the Leadership Institute. I had the privilege of serving on Warren’s board.

About two years ago, when I interviewed Warren for a group I was mentoring, he said, “I don’t know of a time when leadership is more of an issue. To survive in the 21st century, we’re going to need a new generation of leaders, not managers.” He clarified that leaders are strategic thinkers, while managers are tacticians.

Warren prophesied that managers had to change their way of leading. “Move to maestro from macho in the way we’re thinking,” he challenged. That means to shelve “command and control” thinking. Be a real leader who both listens and guides people to get the job done.

I asked Warren to prioritize, as best he could, the skills of a corporate leader today.

The first thing he mentioned was contextual intelligence. In other words, CEOs and their teams have to know “what is going on in the world that could inflect, deflect or influence their organization.” He warned that CEOs and top teams today get too isolated and insulated and ultimately fail.

In “On Becoming a Leader,” he wrote that all leaders seem to exhibit some, if not all, of the following qualities:

• Guiding vision. “The leader has a clear idea of what he wants to do — professionally and personally — and the strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failures.”

• Passion. “The leader loves what he does and loves doing it. The leader who communicates passion gives hope and inspiration to other people.”

• Integrity. “I think there are three essential parts of integrity: Self-knowledge, candor and maturity. … Until you truly know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word. … Candor is the key to self-knowledge. Candor is based in honesty of thought and action, a steadfast devotion to principle, and a fundamental soundness and wholeness. … Maturity is important to a leader because … every leader needs to have experienced and grown through following — learning to be dedicated, observant, capable of working with and learning from others, never servile, always truthful.”

For a long time, Warren worked hard to achieve a key ambition: to become a university president. When he finally achieved his goal as president of the University of Cincinnati, he came to an unsettling realization. He liked having the prestige of being a university president, but he didn’t enjoy doing the work it required.

That’s when he started developing what ultimately became a four-question test for people seeking success in life. Those four questions are:

• Do you know the difference between what you want and what you’re good at?

• Do you know both what drives you and what gives you satisfaction?

• Do you know both your own priorities and values, and those of the organization you work for?

• Can you identify the differences between the two alternatives in each of the above questions — and can you overcome those differences?

“If you can,” he wrote later, “then success will be yours. In a nutshell, the key to success is identifying those unique modules of talent within you and then finding the right arena to use them.”

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