Warren Bennis has come full circle. Best known for his work on leadership, he now believes the dynamics of groups are more fascinating than iconic leaders on their own.
It's a rare management expert who admits that he or she doesn't know. But a kind of fresh inquisitiveness is part of Warren Bennis' magnetic charm. An interview with Bennis - disarmingly forthcoming, more dashing than anyone has a right to be at the age of 73 - is the opposite of the usual didactic question-and-answer session: an enquiry into the state of sex and marriage, history and literature as well as leadership and the functioning of groups, Bennis' management specialities. The nominal roles are often reversed: why did you ask that question? What is your experience of leaders and leadership?
Even more than in the case of his friend, Peter Drucker, for Bennis the personal and professional have always been closely intertwined. In his beautifully crafted autobiographical essay, revealingly entitled An Invented Life, he notes: 'It seems to me that the issues we select to study are almost always the underground churning of unresolved conflicts - that our ideas stem from an attempt to solve our existential predicaments and that the unlikely force behind all rational problem-solving is the need to quieten our demons.' It doesn't take psychoanalysis (one of his obvious influences) to sense that Bennis' demons are the need to belong and the desire to overcome a sense of powerlessness, and they are constantly present in his work.
In Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, says Bennis, he has come full circle. Although he is currently best known in management circles for his best-selling work on leadership, back in the '50s and '60s Bennis was burning his intellectual candle at both ends, in Tom Peters' description, by investigating group behaviour and dynamics. His academic reputation rests on the meticulous research work he did then at MIT on group interaction and the social architecture of organisations. At the same time, along with distinguished contemporaries such as Chris Argyris, he plunged enthusiastically into the heady atmosphere of the National Training Laboratories (NTL) at Bethel, Maine, the fertile seed-bed for many of the first postwar generation of US management thinkers, to experience what he was writing about in practice.
Leading a T(for training)-group, Bennis later wrote, 'was a wild, exhilarating experience ... For a period of two weeks a group of strangers was brought together and asked to leave behind the roles, constraints and norms of everyday life. People screamed, people guffawed, people wept, people talked: you never knew what would happen next. In the micro-utopias of Bethel, I discovered what life could be like when the usual mechanisms that govern our quotidian lives are absent.' In T-groups it is possible to see in embryo some of the non-hierarchical, adaptive organisational forms today's organisations are experimenting with.
After protracted negotiations, Bennis declined an offer from NTL. But he was haunted by the need, again, not just to teach management and leadership, but to experience it for himself. There followed a decade of academic management, first at the State University of New York and Buffalo, and then as president of the University of Cincinnati. The most important lesson of Cincinnati, he says, was the difference between management and leadership, and it is this that he has been exploring in a series of meditations on leaders and leadership, notably Leaders and On Becoming a Leader, that have influenced a whole generation of managers struggling to move away from the old command-and-control style of management.
Latterly Bennis has been involved in the development of a Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, where he has taught and researched since 1979. But as he has refined his views, particularly to include the importance of followers, he has come to believe that the dynamics of creative groups are more fascinating than iconic leaders on their own. 'Great groups', his latest subject, finally brings the whole complex of ideas together.
Organizing Genius, a collaborative work with Patricia Ward Biederman, foregrounds an old underlying theme from NTL days: 'None of us is as smart as all of us.' One, says Bennis, is too small a number to produce greatness.
This should not be taken to mean that there is no longer any need for leadership. On the contrary: Bennis recently wrote in a review for the Harvard Business Review that a dearth of leadership was one of the three greatest world problems (the others were nuclear war and ecological catastrophe).
But to achieve greatness it must be a new kind of leadership. 'We have to recognise a new paradigm: not great leaders alone, but great leaders who exist in a fertile relationship with a Great Group. In these creative alliances, the leader and the team are able to achieve something together that neither could achieve alone. The leader finds greatness in the group.
And he or she helps the members find it in themselves.'
To pin down the magic, Bennis and Biederman explore the history of seven great groups in action: Walt Disney's animation studio, Xerox PARC (which invented the graphical user interface for computers), Apple (which popularised it), President Clinton's 1992 election campaign, Lockheed's famous 'skunk works', the artistic community at Black Mountain, and the Manhattan Project which developed the atom bomb in the 1940s.
Despite the widely differing aims of these case studies, Bennis believes that great groups have many things in common. For example, giving the lie to 'the remarkably persistent notion that successful institutions are the lengthened shadow of a great woman or man,' great groups and great leaders are interdependent - they create each other. Even so, a great group cannot function without a strong leader, one who most sharply focuses the communal purpose and talents. Great groups are sometimes reckless, often unrealistic and generally intolerant of outsiders and those who don't unconditionally share their sense of mission. They are often 'deep in Peter Pan territory', says Bennis. But protected by their leaders, great groups concentrate on essentials, frequently to the detriment of the niceties.
The snag, of course, is that such miraculous chemistry is by definition exceptional. Sustaining effort at this intensity may be impossible. Even where the elusive touchpaper is ignited, the interaction raises as many questions as it answers. Why are there few if any great groups of women?
Or international ones? Bennis sighs. 'I think of myself personally as a failure in terms of both leadership and Great Groups,' he confesses.
But he brightens again at the thought - for the moment just at the concept stage - of working with companies or teams of people to try to create the conditions for greatness. After all, what better way of quieting the demons than using individual agency and belonging to achieve greatness in practice? 'I'm not interested in the mechanics,' muses Bennis. 'But wouldn't it be good to establish the seven effective habits of Great Groups?'.