Leading Edge: Common Ground

By Warren Bennis  |  Posted 11-11-2002

Leading Edge: Common Ground

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.

Next Generation

As a geezer, I was initially distressed by what I saw as a lack of substance in the choices of our geeks. And then I remembered that our geeks are as much children of their time as I am of mine. Unlike those of us who grew up with radio and movies, their eyes and minds have been trained by television and the computer to process information at strobe-like speed. They are gobblers of information (the image that pops to mind is of Pac-Man), not sippers. They do not retrieve information as my generation did (and often still does)—by patiently reading books from cover to cover in a dogged search for useful, nuanced data. The new leaders expect to find what they want to know now.

One of our geeks—Ian Clarke, who founded Freenet in his early 20s—gave a passionate defense of the instantaneous educational process he prefers. He described the joy of discovering something he is interested in and being able to contact the author by e-mail and get an almost immediate response. In praise of this whirlwind approach to learning, he says: "[The Internet is] just this huge collaboration of people, many of whom are very, very smart, irrespective of geographic location…I view it as one huge university."

My guess is that Ian is an example of what I call the only-child syndrome. Unlike siblings, only children don't have to queue up for anything—not for second helpings at dinner, not for their parents' affection or attention. The computer reinforces this condition—you don't have to stand patiently in line when using the computer either. It's an enviable position in many ways.

Ian Clarke and his generation feel the need for speed. And that is an invaluable reminder to my generation of the importance, in today's world, of making decisions quickly, in collaboration with others and often without all the information most older decision-makers prefer to have.

In the year or two since we did our interviews, the world has changed dramatically, especially for our geeks. Some have lost the leadership roles they had created for themselves in the New Economy. In the current economic turmoil, many are experiencing uncertainty for the first time. We don't yet know how these setbacks will shape the future leadership styles of our geeks. But we do know that they are creative, adaptive people who will find valuable lessons in whatever is thrown at them. My guess is that the current crisis has given our geeks a more sober view of technology. The United States patent office is as busy as it has ever been, and yet the last few years have made clear that while technology is necessary for survival in today's economy, it is no guarantee of success.

Building Better Leaders

I suspect that young leaders are newly aware of both the limits of technology and the paramount importance of a panoply of leadership skills and attributes other than techno savvy, especially empathy and integrity. If they emerge with both their confidence intact and a new appreciation for virtues other than their own, they will be even better leaders than they were before.

The difference in the heroes of the two groups is also instructive. Our geezers chose leaders of Rushmorean stature—giants such as F.D.R. and Martin Luther King. Our younger leaders had few heroes in the traditional sense. When pressed, they named their parents as the people they admired most. Several cited counter-culture figures such as gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson and musician Jerry Garcia. Business leaders were notably absent from their list.

Bob and I did our research before Sept. 11, before Americans recognized anew the nobility of firefighters and others who selflessly rush into disasters when everyone else is rushing out. It is not yet clear whether the dreadful events of that day have permanently changed us and given the nation a new set of values. But given that collective blow, followed so closely by revelations about corporate wrongdoing, I expect to see a societal shift away from worshipping economic success above all else toward far greater respect for altruism and self-sacrifice.

We already know that more and more people, young and old, rushed to volunteer in the wake of Sept. 11. And people signed up in numbers not seen since the Kennedy Peace Corps years for public service of all kinds, including applying to the State Department and volunteering for the armed services.

When our young leaders were interviewed, they were still innocent in some ways, unmarked by war or an epic disaster like the Depression. They are different now, changed as we were changed by the searing events of an earlier time. I predict that they will now discover heroes of their own—genuine heroes, not dead rock stars, however talented. I will not be surprised if these new heroes are younger versions of the monumental figures my generation so admired.

History has taught them something that we could not. I am reminded of what Abigail Adams wrote to John Quincy Adams more than 200 years ago during another troubled, exhilarating period in American history: "These are times in which a genius would wish to live. Great necessities call out great virtues."

In the past, hard times have always served as a crucible from which leaders emerge. If the events of Sept. 11 prove to be a crucible as well—one that forges a whole new generation of authentic leaders—then we will have a reason to be grateful as well as a reason to mourn.

Warren Bennis is a professor of business at the University of Southern California and coauthor of Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press).