Warren Bennis Leadership Theory

You could say that Warren Bennis was born to be a leader. As one of the youngest infantry officers in the European campaign for the United States, Bennis came home with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Outside of his military career, Bennis spent time at MIT studying group behavior. He wanted to see what traits really affected a group mindset instead of what had just been assumed. Then, in the 1961, his Revisionist Theory of Leadership was published and this turned the idea of what a real leader is upside down. It is, in fact, what most leadership styles are based off of today.

What Makes a Good Leader?

Serving in the military, Bennis was use to a concrete chain-of-command. There was no questioning orders, no thinking, and no debate – there was just doing. That attitude was seen throughout most leaders of that era because that’s what was seen as the most effective. After studying the group mindset, however, Bennis discovered something truly unique: that the most effective leaders were the ones that didn’t emphasize their position.

That means the best leaders had these specific traits:

Humbleness. Being a leader isn’t about making yourself popular or famous. It’s about leading a team to be better than they are without you and giving them the credit for their results. In other words, you’re an equal member of the team, just one with the role of a leader.

Humanistic: Great leaders can’t just see in black and white because humanity operates within shades of grey. That’s why leaders take a humanistic perspective and make an effort to see where their team is coming from because that’s how a leader can help guide the team to where they need to go. That doesn’t mean all decisions, ethics, or moralities aren’t defined, but it does mean that many circumstances don’t need an equal level of definition.

Democratic: The chain-of-command works in the military because there are times when you need a soldier to do what they’re told so they don’t die. That one second when they question an order could literally be the moment that a bullet or mortar strikes them! The business world isn’t the same environment as the military, for example, which means it shouldn’t have the same attitude either. Bennis found, in fact, that the leaders who incorporate the opinions and perspectives of their entire team would be more effective over the long term than those who dictated circumstances.

Emphasizing Three Core Traits

These three basic traits are at the core of every decision, every attitude, and every personality within a team. By focusing on them to improve them just a little bit every day, a team can grow and evolve to become something spectacular! That doesn’t mean the chain-of-command isn’t important or doesn’t work. What it means, according to Bennis, is that the great person at the top of the food chain isn’t always the best example of modern leadership.

In that, Bennis revised what it means to be a good leader. Five decades later, we’re still seeing the value of his unique perspective every day!

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