Leading Edge: Common Ground

By Warren Bennis  |  Posted 11-11-2002 Print Email
Internet generation leaders simply do not think like their World War II generation counterparts, writes columnist Warren Bennis, but a common experience—war and hard times—could close the gap.

My generation was indelibly marked by the Great Depression and World War II. They formed the crucible that determined who we are—what we long for, what we value, even our dominant leadership style. Command-and-control was the leadership model practiced on the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific. It was a style that literally saved many of our lives, and it is not surprising that most business leaders of my generation chose to practice it when they took charge.

Until 1992, all our recent presidents had been shaped by those twin catastrophes. That all changed when Bill Clinton became president. He was a new kind of leader, a child of protest and mistrust of the status quo, just as those of my generation were children of belief. Now, contemporaries of Clinton head most of our institutions, public and private. He and President George W. Bush grew up in a different world than their predecessors, their reality shaped by a different zeitgeist.

Crucibles were very much on my mind while working on Geeks and Geezers, the book I recently wrote with Bob Thomas, an author and consultant with Accenture. In doing our research, I was struck by the profound differences between my generation of leaders and today's younger leaders. Since then, the world has had to face two new crises, with the potential to change lives just as profoundly as earlier ones did—the protracted recession and the uncertainty following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. People are being transformed right now in the crucible these events have created, and one result, I predict, will be the discovery of more common ground between younger and older leaders.

Before elaborating, let me provide some insights into the leader groups. For our book, we conducted in-depth interviews with two groups of leaders— those 35 and younger, and those 70 and older. Among our geeks are Earthlink cofounder Sky Dayton and Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America. Our geezers include TV's Mike Wallace, architect Frank Gehry and Arthur Levitt, Jr., former head of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. I don't have space here to describe all the differences, so I'll focus on two especially telling ones—their favorite books and their heroes.

Every one of our geezers named books that would have warmed the hearts of their high-school English teachers, from Shakespeare and the Bible to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. In contrast, our geeks chose Ayn Rand, and pop and children's fiction, including works by Tom Clancy and Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree.



 

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