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 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2010: Biography and History

Brinkley argues that Luce and his magazines succeeded because they were reliable reflections of their time, mirroring the values, aspirations, and beliefs of an increasingly affluent middle class. He notes that the magazine empire that Luce built began its long decline (extending to this day) in the 1960s when the American “consensus” was broken and society fractionated as a result of the Vietnam War and the women’s and civil rights movements. Today, it is simply impossible for a single publication to speak to the interests of the countless diverse audiences served by dozens of cable channels and millions of websites.

On a personal note: While in graduate school, I worked as an apprentice correspondent for Time beginning in 1967, the year Luce passed away. I have never had a better job.

Another’s Good Fortune

If the late Peter Drucker was the father of management studies, octogenarian Warren Bennis deserves the same mantle with reference to leadership. In Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership, Bennis examines his own life through the same lens he has used successfully over the years to analyze the behavior of business and political leaders.

That lens is what social scientists call role, and it adds a useful perspective to this unusual memoir. Bennis notes that biographers typically “look to psychobiography, not role, to explain human behavior,” focusing great attention on the family as the crucible in which individual character is formed (as Brinkley successfully does with Luce). However, Bennis argues that “leadership is so often a function, not of one’s personality or psychological makeup, but of the role one finds oneself in.”

Hence, Bennis dispenses with the expected histories of his parents and childhood and dives straight into 10 lively and focused chapters, each detailing the life and leadership lessons he learned playing various roles, including that of an NCO during World War II (he was awarded the Bronze Star when he was barely old enough to shave), a member of various research teams, a university president, and, later, a mentor, a teacher, and a father.

Throughout the book Bennis reminds us that his “has been a largely charmed life,” and he credits his manifest success to the good fortune of finding the right colleagues at critical moments in his career. His first and most significant mentor was the great Douglas McGregor, whose The Human Side of Enterprise (McGraw-Hill, 1960) stands as the most influential management book ever written. (See “Theory U and Theory T,” by Matthew Stewart, s+b, Autumn 2010.) McGregor’s insights about Theories X and Y were profound, and subsequent books by such gurus as Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, and Jim Collins can be seen as additions to, or refinements of, that masterful work. Bennis notes that there have been echoes of McGregor in everything he has written over the last 50 years. (Disclosure: Warren Bennis has played a role in my own career similar to that which McGregor played in his).

Thanks to good luck, and McGregor’s influence, Bennis found himself in Cambridge, Mass., in the 1950s at exactly the time modern social science was being created at Harvard and MIT by such luminaries as economists Paul Samuelson, Robert Modigliani, and Robert Solow; sociologists David Riesman, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton; anthropologists Clyde Kluckhohn and Clifford Geertz; and psychologists Gordon Allport, Abraham Maslow, Erik Erikson, Kurt Lewin, and Erving Goffman, all of whom were Bennis’s teachers, friends, and colleagues (he earned his doctorate in economics at MIT). As an aside, I can’t help noticing that Lewin died at age 47, McGregor at 58, and Maslow at 62, all at ages when today we expect scholars to be most productive. (Bennis notes that everyone smoked then.) Also different then was the relative absence of barriers between disciplines. Most of the individuals listed above knew one another, were familiar with one another’s work, and often worked together on research teams. Such experiences led Bennis to a lifetime search for “community,” to be a part of “good groups” and imbued with the desire to lead organizations in which the entire cast and crew would be “making the same movie.”

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