Friday, July 07, 2006

On Becoming a Leader - Book Review

*This book review was part of a team assignment for my MGT 303 course. Still a pretty good read.*

Background on the author:
Described as a management guru, Warren Bennis is a professor of business administration at the University of Southern California.

On Becoming a Leader was written by Bennis in the 1980’s and consists of “an important series of insights into the qualities which make for successful, long-lasting leadership abilities.” (The Midwest Book Review).

Why leaders are required?
Looking back at history, it can be noticed that people have always needed leaders who could guide them through adversities and create a vision for them that would enhance their current condition. However, history also tells us that not all leaders worked for the welfare of their people. Some may have their own self-interest set as the first priority. But whatever the situation might be, Bennis has found similar qualities among all the leaders. Some of these qualities are as follows:

· Relating well to others
· Motivating people and attracting [them]
· [Applying the] golden rule, “the leader treats people the way he likes to be treated”.
· [Showing] trust in others
· Vision, inspiration, empathy, and trustworthiness – are manifestations of a leader’s judgment and character
· Competence - a true sense of mastery of the task, level of human sensitivity, tact, compassion, and diplomacy.
· Ability not to give up.

“To master the competitive environment [Bennis said that] leaders must first understand the challenges of the 21st century. [The] second step is to change the culture [of the organization to adhere to the challenges]”.

Step 1: Understanding the Challenges:
“To become a true leader one must know the world as well as one knows oneself.”

Understanding the challenges involves two things. First, studying the environment or the changes taking place in the market the organization competes in, recognizing the opportunities and making the best use of these opportunities. Looking at the challenges of the 21st century, Bennis mentions 5 potential forces working [currently] on the world and on organizations:

· Technology
· Global interdependence
· Mergers and acquisitions
· Deregulations and regulations
· Demographics and values

Second, the leader must know and understand himself well. This is because “leaders are not born, but made, and usually self-made”. Bennis mentions 4 lessons that help a leader in knowing himself better:

· Lesson 1: “You are your own best teacher”
A leader knows his own strengths and weaknesses better. For him “learning is experienced as a personal transformation”; whereby he teaches himself the lessons of the life that cannot be passed on.

· Lesson 2: “Accept responsibility. Blame no one”
This lesson can be summarized in the words of John Wooden, “failure is not crime. Low aim is”.

· Lesson 3: “You can learn anything you want to learn”
Kaplan explained this when he said, “Unless you have the appetite to absorb new and potentially unsettling things, you don’t learn… part of it is temperament. It’s a kind of fearlessness and optimism and confidence, and you’re not afraid of failure.”learning from experience involves looking back into ones childhood and adolescence and understanding what happened to oneself then so as to make things happen now. It also involves looking at ones experiences that occurred in the present, taking risks with the knowledge that failure is as vital as it is inevitable, looking at the future as an opportunity to do all those things that one couldn’t do, and finally to use ones instincts and seize the opportunity that are offered by life.

Apart from understanding the challenges that the organization might face, a leader should also be involved in innovative learning; this is when the leader anticipates (that he is being active and imaginative rather than passive and habitual), he learns by listening to others, and he participates in shaping the events rather than being shaped by them.

Step 2: Changing the Culture:
For a leader to initiate change in the organization he needs to have strategic thinking; this requires a leader to have a vision of where he wants the organization to be. He then finds all possible ways to reach that vision by using the techniques of altering, connecting, comparing, and revising. Once he knows his options he selects the best one, alters it by looking at its positive and negative aspects, examines it objectively, and finally devises a plan with detailed tasks to be accomplished to make the vision come true.

For leaders to make changes in the organization, they have to undergo the following steps:
· Define the organization’s mission, so as to frame its activities and inform its work force.
· Create a flexible environment in which people are not only valued, but encouraged to develop to their full potential, and treated as equals rather than subordinates.
· Reshape the corporate culture so that creativity, autonomy, and continuous learning replace conformity, obedience and rote; and long-term growth, not short-term profits, is goal.
· Transform the organization from a rigid of autonomous units.
· Encourage innovation, experimentation and risk taking.
· [Constantly] anticipate future by reading the present.
· Make new connections within the organizations, and new relationships within the work force.
· Make new alliances outside the organization
· Constantly studying the organization from the outside as well as the inside.
· Identify and respond to new and unprecedented needs in the work force.
· Be proactive rather than reactive, comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.

Way for companies to encourage and stimulate learning:
Bennis mentions 3 ways in which companies can stimulate learning of leadership skills in executives in their early career.

· Opportunity = empowerment
Bennis explains this as giving the opportunities to the executives to lead projects, practice their skills, and learn more through job rotation. However, these opportunities should be challenging for them. “The higher the stakes, more opportunity there are for learning – of course – the more opportunity there is for failure and mistakes. Failure and mistakes are a major source of vital experience.”

· Meaning = engagement
Bennis explains that companies should have clear mission statements so that its employees will know how their efforts will be rewarded.

· Learning = leading
Employees should not just be given the opportunities, tests and rewards to learn. Rather they should be motivated to learn to work as team and with other members of the organization.

“Universities…contribute…to make a dog obedient to you”:
Bennis mentions at the start of the book, “Schools or universities are better at training than educating. This is unfortunate since training does not contribute in making a leader but to make a dog obedient to you.”

At another place, Bennis criticizes universities for “producing throngs of narrow minded specialist who may be wizards at making money, but who are unfinished as people. These specialists have being thought how to do, but they have not learned how to be.”

However, we believe that Bennis does not justify when making these statements. A true leader recognizes the opportunities in the environment, creates a vision, develops a plan to make the vision come true and then translates the vision to the employees in a way they would understand it better. Universities undertake projects to make its students experience the work environment and work in groups. Students are made to think of ideas for these projects and then they work as a team to make their idea work. Bennis said, “True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience”. However, these projects are short term, thereby giving little time for the students to do reflective thinking while working on the project and exhibit their leadership skills to full extend in it. However, students do learn, to a certain degree, how to work in groups, delegate tasks among themselves, and to make the best use of the available skills (resources) on the team.

In short, leaders recognize the changes taking place in their environments and take the incentive to make the change. The qualities of the leaders include that they manage the dream, they embrace, they encourage reflective backtalk, they encourage dissent, they posses the Nobel factors of optimism, faith and hope, they understand the Pygmalion effect in management, they have a certain “touch”, they see the long view, they understand stake holder symmetry, and they create strategic alliances and partnerships.


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