A Tribute to Warren Bennis, integral to the Centre for Leadership Studies (CLS)
By Alan Hooper (Founder of CLS and a CLS Fellow)
I first met Warren Bennis at a Leadership conference in the Lake District in the early 1990s where he was a speaker. I had read a number of his publications and admired his pragmatic and practical take on leadership but, despite that, I was immediately disarmed by his open and friendly attitude - this man did not do ‘ego!’ My initial impressions were reinforced when I was introduced to him by John Adair who was another speaker at the conference. I had recently been appointed as the Founding Director of the Centre for Leadership Studies (CLS) at Exeter University and John was our first Visiting Professor. When John explained what we were trying to do at Exeter, Warren just said ‘how can I help?’
This unconditional attitude was typical of this gentle white haired man with the permanent Californian tan. But this charming external approach hid a sharp mind and a strong determination to change the face of leadership by his writing and by his mentoring of top leaders, including four US Presidents. His ‘offer to help’ led to him joining John as a Visiting Professor to CLS and, so for a period, Exeter had arguably the two best writers in the world on Leadership as VPs. Warren was an Anglophile and had been coming to UK annually for a number of years to speak at conferences, but this academic position in one of the UK’s top universities gave him a sound base in this country, and he used it shrewdly to promote his ideas on this side of the Atlantic. He also recognised, before Exeter University did, the significance of this fledgling Centre which was becoming the centre of gravity in this country for the development of leadership thought.
He gave an excellent inaugural professorial lecture to a packed Moot Room, an event chaired by the then Vice-Chancellor, who was also a strong supporter of ‘the Bennis approach’ and was using some of his ideas in the transformation of Exeter. Warren followed this lecture with some outstanding workshops for the post graduate students on the MA in Leadership (then the only academic course of its kind in Europe). He recognised Exeter’s pioneering work in the field of Leadership and we had many deep discussions about how leadership could be moved from a top-down attitude to a more coaching approach. It was exciting to be able to work with this world-class thinker as I wrestled with how best to position CLS. This included an invitation to his annual five-day Leadership conference at which all the top American thinkers spoke, such was the pull of Warren Bennis
Warren only attended one CLS Advisory Board but his contribution was significant. We were struggling with how to attract support from corporate organisations and he suggested that we use something he had developed in the States called ‘6X6’ – six sessions a year of six hours each. I took this idea back to the University and one of my team, Elaine Dunn, said that was far too much time for high-flyers to commit in UK; more like four sessions of four hours; and so the ‘4X4’ was invented! This has since been renamed the Exeter Leadership Partners – a partnership which has been going for 14 years. Appropriately, Warren gave the first talk to this group.
The link between Warren Bennis and Exeter University is significant in that this relationship helped to develop the thinking about leadership in the UK to the point where it became recognised as a legitimate academic subject. From a personal point of view it was a real privilege to know Warren Bennis ‘the man who invented the study of corporate leadership’ (The Economist, 9 Aug14), not only because he was such a great thinker and writer, but also because he was a very warm and generous man.