Leadership can be learned : the Warren Bennis’s theory

Warren Bennis, one of the founders of the modern study of leadership, is said to offered a provocative perspective on where leaders come from:  “I don’t know if leadership can be taught … but I believe it can be learned.

Bennis argued that many leaders are formed via “crucible moments”— formative events, critical struggles, or serious challenges that force individuals to learn, grow, and think differently about themselves.  And he argued that “becoming a leader” (which is the title of his classic book) depends more on discovering the world and fully expressing yourself than it does on learning what is taught in most business schools or executive education programs.

Not all of us get to experience “crucible moments” on a regular basis—probably a good thing, since these events can be taxing and disruptive.  In the absence of crucibles, how can you catalyze your own development as a leader?

In short, the answer lies in paying attention.  In order for learning and development to take place, we must pause periodically amidst the whirlwind of daily life, pull back, and reflect and consider: What is happening?  Why it is happening?  And what changes can be made to get closer to the desired results?  That may sound like rather broad field of questions to ponder, and it is.  But these questions become more manageable when we can consider them through a prism of what matters most.  And that is where The Leadership Triangle can be helpful.

Growth as a leader is anchored in three fundamental aspects: clarifying and prioritizing your GOALS; deepening your understanding of the OTHERS you must engage and influence; and developing keener knowledge and awareness of YOURSELF.  Furthermore, each of these aspects is dynamically dependent on the other aspects—hence we draw the model as a Celtic Triangle to underscore those dependencies.  (We sometimes refer to the model as “The Leadership Tripod,” since a tripod will fall over if any of its legs is missing.)

We start with GOALS, which are usually about change:  innovating, growing, contending with disruption, getting people or a business from here to there.  If there is no change there is no need for leaders, only managers.  Goals must be few, specific, and prioritized: laying out dozens of important broad goals for the next 12 or 18 months is about as useful as laying out none.  Their generality and equal weight won’t guide you, and in any case you’ll never accomplish that many.  (If everything is important, then nothing is important.  Interestingly, the plural “priorities” is rarely recorded prior to the 20th Century, and only begins to occur with frequency along with the rise of management theory in the 1960’s and 1970’s.)  Goals can have many levels, or layers like an onion.  As an executive you may have goals for this quarter (especially in a public company) or for a specific project.  You may have goals for the year; for your current role or function over the next several years; for your professional career; and even for your life in the long term.  Goals should relate to both strategy and purpose, for yourself, your followers, and your organization.  Being clear about goals is essential—which is why companies spend so much effort on long-term planning and strategic goal setting.  But if you’re not the CEO you must also interpret your own goals in the context of those for the enterprise.  And what you decide not to focus on is as important as what you choose to pursue.

GOALS, of course, are closely related to both OTHERS and SELF.  How do you engage and empower others to accomplish those goals?  Why are those goals important to you and your stakeholders?  And which tasks related to achieving those goals should you tackle yourself, or where do you most need someone else’s skill set or perspectives?

The second corner of the Triangle is OTHERS.  If you are a leader you are by definition not an individual contributor; therefore achieving your goals will require you to get things done with and through others.  As a first step, therefore, it is vital that you ensure that everyone is working with the same goals and values in mind.  Moreover, the people you are leading, influencing, and collaborating with need to have a connection to the goals—and ideally be co-authors of the vision or mission.  If your goals are not meaningful or important to your stakeholders (who may include your team, your peers, your clients, your bosses, and others), they will disengage: never forget how important purpose is for motivating and mobilizing people.  Not every stakeholder will agree with your goals, so make sure you have the “critical mass” of support you need, and that you have plans to keep dissenters from derailing you. Looking ahead to the third corner of the Triangle, you must also to understand how others experience YOU:  Are your values and leadership philosophy clear to them?  Do they feel they can have open communication with you, that you listen, and that you care about what’s important to them?  You must be thoughtful and disciplined about how you understand and manage your stakeholders, build high-performing teams, and coach and develop the people you are responsible for. This OTHERS corner of the Triangle underscores the rationale for practices such as 360-degree reviews and soliciting feedback

We’ve saved the third corner of the Triangle, SELF, for last because much of today’s formal leadership development and executive coaching focuses here. But if you disregard OTHERS and GOALS, you risk becoming a self-aware person who is well-versed in theories of leadership but fails to motivate others and achieve results.  Self-understanding is critical: as Socrates (one of the first recorded teachers of leadership) famously advised: “Know Thyself.”  But for leaders self-understanding should be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. True and authentic self-knowledge and self-awareness are essential for all leaders:  What am I good at—and not good at?  What do I like doing?  What are my values and what really motivates me?  What kind of leader do I want to be, and why?  But self-awareness must be informed by our understanding of OTHERS as well: How do I come across to others when I’m under pressure?  What do my stakeholders need from me, and how can I provide that to them?  Increasing your own self-understanding should also bring you back to your GOALS:  Where does my energy draw me—and is that the right focus given what we’re trying to accomplish?  Why am I striving to accomplish these things?  What will happen next if I do?  Finally, once you have progressed on your own journey of self-understanding in the context of leadership, you must also ask what may be the most difficult question of all:  “Why would anyone want to follow me?” 

The development of leaders is, obviously, a massive topic; entire bookcases in any library are filled with books addressing it.  This newsletter only scratches the surface, and rather than trying to offer pat answers, our desire here is to illustrate the helpfulness of the Triangle of GOALS, OTHERS, and SELF for thinking about your own development as a leader.  Focus on only one or two of these corners and you will almost certainly be an incomplete leader. Those “crucibles” Warren Bennis describes are hard to come by, so most of us will encounter only one or two in a lifetime.  Find additional ways to develop yourself:  solicit advice from a mentor, work with a good coach, and engage your team and colleagues to help you grow. 


Leadership can be learned.  What’s your plan?

Do your experiences in evolving as a leader—or in helping create other leaders—resonate with the Leadership Triangle?  We'd love to hear about it: newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com


“There's no such thing as a natural-born pilot.”

           —Chuck Yeager

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