Resource Index > Book Lists

In-Depth Review

On Becoming a Leader
Warren Bennis
Perseus Books, 1994 2nd Edition
ISBN 0-201-40929-1


A highly acclaimed work on the paradigm of leadership. This book distills a set of lessons from the experiences of 28 diverse cases of successful leadership. It is a must-read for a wide spectrum of people, since virtually all of us are involved in the leadership process either as leaders or followers or both. This book should be read from start to finish and not skimmed or condensed.

Book Catalog Data

Bennis, Warren G.

On becoming a leader / Warren Bennis
226 pages
Bibliography: p. 217
Includes Index
ISBN 0-201-40929-1 (paperback)
Leadership. 2. Leadership - Case studies
Library catalog number: BF637.L4B37 1994


This book should be at the top of the reading list in any serious study of leadership. This is the second of two volumes on leadership that have established Warren Bennis as an authority on the subject. The first book, Leaders, focused on the "what" of leadership. On Becoming A Leader presents the "how" of leadership by examining 28 case studies of leadership. Bennis distills out of these interviews common themes and attributes of the leadership experience. Both the personal qualities of these people and the environments in which they emerged as leaders are examined.

This is not a "how to" book on becoming a leader. Bennis gives clear warning in his introductions that the road to leadership is fraught with challenges. He dismisses the "leadership in a weekend" type course as the "microwave theory of leadership training: pop in Mr. or Mrs. Average and in 60 seconds out comes a leader." He even qualifies the more legitimate courses of study by the observation that while leadership courses can teach skills; they cannot teach leadership qualities such as vision and character.

Nor is it an autobiography of a leader's personal experience. Warren Bennis has been a teacher and student all his life. He has never run a company or a country. Bennis is not directly recounting his own experiences as a leader (though in a pointed aside he remarks that the classroom is a potential site for the emergence of leadership).

Bennis' value is in his scholarship: his ability to distill from the experiences of successful leaders a set of lessons on how to achieve successful leadership. These lessons are punctuated by anecdotal stories and vignettes by the leaders who lived these lessons. This format creates a highly credible, compelling, and sometimes-dramatic presentation that is very readable and thought-provoking.

Notably, Bennis describes in a very personal way the role of failure as a learning process. He discusses a coaching failure in which he personally participated. This is the case of "Ed" in the Chapter 1 section named Surrendering to the Context. This description of leadership failure (and Bennis's own failure as a coach to mitigate it) lends a certain honesty to the discussion, demonstrating that leadership ability can be elusive and that success is not guaranteed (even with Mr. Bennis as your personal sidekick). One of the lessons he distills from virtually all of his leaders is the necessity of making mistakes, which they hold " virtually synonymous with growth and progress."

This book will be of value to a wide spectrum of people. Those who are currently dealing with the challenges of leadership will benefit from the organization of ideas and themes that they may have already sensed to some degree. And those who are "followers" or "constituents" will gain a better understanding of how crucial is their own role in the dynamics of leadership, as well as a better understanding of what their own leaders are facing. Perhaps most importantly, those who believe that leadership is the province of others more gifted or better trained than themselves may come to understand that virtually all of us are capable of leadership.

This is a book that you should read from cover to cover. It cannot easily be skimmed for chapters and sections pertinent to a current situation. It has a novel-like story line that should be enjoyed rather than condensed or shuffled. And, as your career evolves through the leadership experience, you may find yourself reading the book again (and again), each time discovering entirely new insight into your own leadership experience.

Chapter Map

This book should be read from cover to cover. We present here a more abbreviated chapter map than usual, as our intent is to generate more interest in reading the book as a whole rather than encourage skipping around.

New introduction to the paperback edition, and Introduction

In the two introductions - one written for the original publication and one a few years later for essentially the same book - Bennis states some of his basic premises and assumptions about leadership. He introduces the 29 subjects of his study, and outlines the basic questions he explored in the dialogues he had with each person. As one would expect in an example of excellent scholarship, the introduction is a clear roadmap of what the author intends to accomplish. I found it helpful to read the introduction again while midway through the book, in order to realign myself with the author's plan.

1 Mastering the Context

Bennis's "context" is a description of the world that we face today. It is a world changing at a furious pace - "the volatile, turbulent, ambiguous managerial surroundings that will suffocate us if we let them." It is a world of increasing cultural inadequacy - the focus on the short term at the expense of national purpose, and the increasing inability of our educational institutions to prepare people for leadership positions. This is the context that must be mastered by those who would be leaders.

After setting this stage, and before presenting his 28 case studies of people who have mastered the context, Bennis gives a compelling case study of a leadership failure. This is the case of "Ed" described in the section Surrendering to the Context. As in the case of most failures, there is much to learn by reading this example carefully, perhaps more so than in some of the successful leadership examples.

He then sets the tone for the rest of the book by recounting the first case of leadership as mastering the context.

2 Understanding the Basics

This chapter states some basic attributes of leadership. It includes a very provocative discussion of the differences between "leaders" and "managers".

3 Knowing Yourself

This short chapter deals with the theme of "knowing oneself". This is a difficult theme to handle in print. Indeed his leadership consensus acknowledges up front that "no one can teach you how to become yourself, to take charge, to express yourself, except you." Nevertheless, Bennis helps us in this task by organizing the process into lessons of self-knowledge.

4 Knowing the World

In this chapter, Bennis attacks the problem of diminishing cultural awareness and how it impedes the emergence of leadership. This is a problem that he discusses at length in the book's introduction. The inherently curious among us will be delighted by Bennis's recommended cure.

This chapter also includes a discussion on the role of friends and mentors in shaping and enhancing cultural awareness, and a discussion on learning from adversity.

5 Operating on Instinct

A compelling discussion of the need to see beyond current paradigms even as you drive day-to-day operations under these same paradigms.

6 Deploying Yourself: Strike Hard, Try Everything

Fully expressing yourself is a basic theme of leadership developed throughout the book. This chapter is effectively a self-assessment test for achieving full self expression in your environment.

7 Moving Through Chaos

This chapter discusses learning from experience, especially adverse experience, and the transformation of experience into wisdom. There are numerous anecdotal examples of learning and improving from failure and adversity.

8 Getting People on Your Side

The crucial role of followers and constituents in making a successful leader is examined in this chapter. A leader's obligation to understand the culture in which he or she operates - and will likely attempt to change -- is emphasized. The importance of vision and integrity in attracting and keeping followers is discussed.

9 Organizations Can Help - or Hinder

The forces of change are categorized and examined. Successful organizations must have certain characteristics in order to survive and thrive in the face of constant change. The tasks that leaders must take on in order to develop these organizational characteristics are discussed. Organizations can both impede and encourage the process of change; the means for both are discussed.

10 Forging the Future

The ten leadership factors for thriving on change and ambiguity are given in this chapter. Though re-summarizing some of the key cultural impediments to leadership, still Bennis closes on the optimistic note that each of us has the means to shape our future rather than be shaped by it. And one of my favorite quotes (in an extremely quotable book) heads Chapter 10:

In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

Eric Hoffer
quoted in
Vanguard Management

List of Useful Items

  • Summary list of basic leadership ingredients. p 39 - 42.
  • Summary list of differences between Leaders and Managers. p. 44 - 46
  • The ten leadership factors for coping with change are listed in Chapter 10, starting on p. 191.

©Copyright 2000-2018 Emprend, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
About us   Site Map   View current sponsorship opportunities (PDF)
Contact us for more information or e-mail
Terms of Service and Privacy Policy