For the past sixty years–before a strategic acquisition, during an international crisis, or after four years in college, one question has been asked by CEO’s, presidents, and students alike.
“Warren, do you have a minute?”
Six words, perhaps better than any other, summarize the life of USC professor and CCLP Distinguished Fellow Warren Bennis, “the founding father of the modern leadership movement.” At an October 6th event hosted by the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, the leadership guru spent a few minutes with USC students, faculty and staff to share stories from his latest book, Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Lifetime in Leadership.
“I always want to teach through a story,” the eight-five year old explained. “I wanted to see if I could use some of my life experiences to actually raise some questions about what leadership is, and pull some examples from my own life that could be interesting to other people.”
Co-sponsored by the USC Marshall School of Business, the breakfast discussion featured Bennis in his characteristic, self-deprecating manner
“It takes a combination of conceit and audacity to write a book, especially a memoir,” Bennis chuckled. “But if you’re fortunate enough, like I am, there will be an audience for what you write.”
Bennis, no stranger to the pen, has authored eighteen books and scores of articles on the common characteristics of the world’s best leaders. But, his latest project began very differently. He eschewed the prosaic style of corporate mission statements and letters to shareholders and offered a heartfelt reflection of his life– both his successes and his failures.
And what may surprise the most ardent Type A, executive-to-be: it is his personal shortcomings that stand out as the leadership guru’s greatest regrets.
“None of my family or friends attended,” Bennis writes in his book of the early days he spent hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities. “I hadn’t invited any of my family largely because I couldn’t imagine then mingling comfortably with Clurie’s wealthy, socially prominent clan. In retrospect, I wish I had been more confident and kinder.”
Although a departure from the style of Bennis’ previous works, it is one that has earned him rave reviews from both leadership experts and literary critics. In a touching moment during the breakfast gathering, Bennis became visibly emotional as he read a review from his toughest critic, his son.
“The people that read your memoir should read it without expectations of leadership,” Bennis read from his son Will’s letter. “The book made me cry. It’s made me proud to read.”
Bennis added, “I don’t think anyone knows anyone else fully. As a parent, there are filters. Your children will never know you fully. And you can’t expect kids to know you fully, but I feel like for the first time, my son did, and it moved me.”
It is these self-critical yet intimate anecdotes that fill Still Surprised, and are among the reasons why Jim Ellis, Dean of the USC Marshall School, has referred to Bennis as “the true treasure of USC.”
Bennis closed the reception by reading an excerpt from his book about his experience teaching with former USC President Steven Sample and the Trojan sense of community .
“USC was the first place that I didn’t feel like a tourist,” Bennis read from his book. “It has become my community. I’ve come home.”
To view photos from the event, please visit the CCLP Collection on Flickr .
To see the video from “Honoring A Lifetime of Leadership” and other video presentations from CCLP, visit the USC Annenberg YouTube page .