On Becoming a Leader

I just finished reading the book On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis. As the tile indicates, this is a book on leadership development – “the hows: how people become leaders, how they lead, and how organizations encourage or stifle potential leaders.” The premise upon which this book is based is best put by Warren himself – “…leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully. By this I mean that they know who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to fully deploy their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. They also know what they want, why they want it, and how to communicate what they want to others, in order to gain their cooperation and support.  Finally, they know how to achieve their goals. The key to full self-expression is understanding one’s self and the world, and the key to understanding is learning – from one’s own life and experience.”

The book then goes on to further elaborate on each of the areas highlighted above. The key differentiator between this and other leadership books is that this one promotes unleashing leadership from within, rather than describe what a person should strive to be. To me, this is the only way to develop sustainable authentic leaders. Another area of focus is that of experience. Warren stresses the importance of experience as the primary and ultimate development vehicle for leaders. Education is all its forms is important – but does not substitute the need for experience whether successes or failures. The book brings to life all of the aspects discussed through the stories of many successful leaders from a variety of sectors.

A must read in the area of leadership and personal development!

Below are some excerpts I found particularly insightful:

1- “Becoming a leader isn’t easy, just as becoming a doctor or a poet isn’t easy, and anyone who claims otherwise is fooling himself. But learning to lead is a lot easier than most of us think it is, because each of us contains the capacity for leadership. In fact, almost every one of us can point to some leadership experience.”

2- “There are three basic reasons why leaders are important. First, they are responsible for the effectiveness of organizations…Second, the change and upheaval of the past years has left us with no place to hide…Third, there is a pervasive, national concern about the integrity of our institutions.”

3- “There are four steps in the process behind Norman Lear’s success in mastering the context: (1) becoming self-expressive; (2) listening to the inner voice; (3) learning from the right mentors; and (4) giving oneself over to a guiding vision.”

4- “If most of us like Ed, are creatures of our context, prisoners of the habits, practices, and rules that make us ineffectual, it is from the Norman Lears, the people who not only challenge and conquer the context but who change it in fundamental ways, that we must learn. The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself. Thus the process begins.”

5- “Leaders come in every size, shape, and disposition…Nevertheless, they all seem to share some, if not all, of the following ingredients: The first basic ingredient of leadership is a guiding vision…the second basic ingredient of leadership is passion…The next basic ingredient of leadership is integrity…Two more basic ingredients of leadership are curiosity and daring.”

6- “All the leaders I talked with agreed that no one can teach you how to become yourself, to take charge, to express yourself, except you. But there are some things that others have done that are useful to think about in the process. I’ve organized them as the four lessons of self-knowledge. They are -One: You are your own best teacher. – Two: Accept responsibility. Blame no one.  – Three: You can learn anything you want to learn. – Four: True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience.”

7- “Self-awareness= self-knowledge = self-possession = self-control = self-expression. You make your life your own by understanding it.”

8- “So innovative learning must replace maintenance/shock learning. The principle components of innovative learning are: -Anticipation: being active and imaginative rather than passive and habitual – Learning by listening to others – Participation: shaping events, rather than being shaped by them”

9- “Leaders, then, learn from their experiences. Learning from experience means – looking back at your childhood and adolescence and using what happened to you then to enable you to make things happen now, so that you become the master of your own life rather than its servant. – consciously seeking the kings of experiences in the present that will improve and enlarge you. – taking risks as a matter of course, with the knowledge that failure is as vital as it is inevitable. – Seeing the future – yours and the world’s – as an opportunity to do al those things you have not done and those things that need to be done, rather than as a trial or a test.”

10- “No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders.”

11- “…Having measured the differences between what you want and what you’re able to do, and between what drives you and what satisfies you, and between what your values are and what the organization’s values are – are you able and willing to overcome those differences?”

12- “Entrepreneur Larry Wilson defined the difference between desire and drive as the difference between expressing yourself and providing yourself.”

13- “The means of expression are the steps to the leadership: 1- Reflection leading to resolution 2- Resolution leading to perspective 3- Perspective leading to point of view 4- Point of view leading to test and measures 5- Tests and measures leading to desire 6- Desire lending to mastery 7- Mastery leading to strategic thinking 8- Strategic thinking leading to full self-expression 9- The synthesis of full self-expression = leadership”

14- “There is magic in experience, as well as wisdom. And more magic in stress, challenge, and adversity, and more wisdom. And the letters JOB after one’s name mean infinitely more to the wise than all rhe BAS, MBAS, and PHDS.”

15- “There are four ingredients leaders have to generate and sustain trust: 1- Constancy. 2- Congruity. 3- Reliability. 4- Integrity.”

16- “…When they asked top executives what advice they would give to younger executives, there were three basic themes: 1- Take advantage of every opportunity. 2- Aggressively search for meaning. 3- Know yourself.”

17- “There are ten factors, ten personal and organizational characteristics for coping with change, forging a new future, and creating learning organizations. 1- Leaders manage the dream. 2- Leaders embrace errors. 3- Leaders encourage reflective backtalk. 4- Leaders encourage dissent. 5- Leaders possess the Nobel Factor. 6- Leaders understand the Pygmalion effect in management. 7- Leaders have what I think of as the Gretzky factor, a certain touch. 8- Leaders see the long view. 9- Leaders understand stakeholder symmetry. 10- Leaders create strategic alliances and partnerships. ”


Omar Halabieh

On Becoming a Leader

On Becoming a Leader


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