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Building Better Leaders

By Warren Bennis  |  Posted 11-11-2002 Print

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).


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