Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Seven Ages of the Leader by Warrne Bennis

Learning & Innovation – September 6, 2008 & September 13, 2008

By Moje Ramos-Aquino, FPM


The Seven ages of the Leader by Warren Bennis



is like attending one whole seminar on leadership with leading gurus as trainers.  It tells about Leadership—Warts and All, When Followers Become Toxic, Putting Leaders on the Couch:  A Conversation with Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, Managers and Leaders:  Are They Different, What Makes a Leader?, Narcissistic Leaders:  The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons and Understanding Leadership.  And they were written by respected experts such as Barbara Kellerman, Lynn Offerman, Diane Coutu, Abraham Zalesznik, Daniel Goldman, Michael MacCoby and W.C.H. Prentice.  Get a copy and learn a lot about leadership.  What I am missing is some kind of self-assessment instrument.  Well, maybe in a real seminar.


Intriguing is The Seven Ages of the Leader by Warren Bennis.  In this intuitive article, Prof. Bennis, founding chairman of the University of Southern California's Leadership Institute, reflects on his own leadership journey from a young lieutenant in the infantry in World War II, as president of a university and as the mentor to a unique nursing student and also shares the experiences of his fellow leaders.


A leader's life has seven ages and they parallel those Shakespeare describes in "As You Like It."  To paraphrase, these stages can be described as infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, general, statesman, and sage.  One way to learn about leadership is to look at each of these developmental stages and consider the issues and crises that are typical of each.


Infant.  For the young man or woman on the brink of becoming a leader, the world that lies ahead is a mysterious, even frightening place.  The fortunate neophyte leader has a mentor.  The popular view of mentors is that they seek out younger people to encourage and champion, in fact the reverse is more often true.  The best mentors are usually recruited and one mark of a future leader is the ability to identify, woo, and win the mentors who will change his or her life. It may feel strange to seek a mentor even before you have the job, but it's a good habit to develop early on.  Recruit a team to back you up; you may feel lonely in your first top job, but you won't be totally unsupported.


The schoolboy, with a shining face.  The first leadership experience is an agonizing education.  It's like parenting, in that nothing else in life fully prepares you to be responsible, to a greater or lesser degree, for other people's well-being.  Worse, you have to learn how to do the job in public, subject to unsettling scrutiny of your every word and act, a situation that's profoundly unnerving and for all but minority of people who truly crave the spotlight.  Like it or not, as a new leader you are always onstage, and everything about you is fair game for comment, criticism, and interpretation (or misinterpretation).  Your dress, your spouse, your table manners, your diction, your wit, your friends, your children's table manners—all will be inspected, dissected and judged.  Your first acts will win people over or they will turn people against you, sometimes permanently.  And those initial acts may have a long-lasting effect on how the group performs.  It is, therefore, almost always best for the novice to make a low-key entry.


The Lover, with a woeful ballad.  Many leaders find themselves "sighing like furnace" as they struggle with the tsunami of problems every organization presents.  For the leader who has come up through the ranks, one of the toughest is how to relate to former peers who now report to you.  It is difficult to set boundaries and fine-tune your working relationships with former cronies. As a modern leader, you don't have the option of telling the person with whom you once shared a pod and lunchtime confidences that you know her not.  But relationships inevitably change when a person is promoted from within the ranks.  You may no longer be able to speak openly as you once did, and your friends may feel awkward around you or resent you.  They may perceive you as lording your position over them when you're just behaving as a leader should. Knowing what to pay attention to is just as important—and just as difficult.  The challenge for the newcomer is knowing who to listen to and who to trust.


The Bearded Soldier.  Over time, leaders grow comfortable with the role.  This comfort brings confidence and conviction, but it also snap the connection between leader and followers.  Two things can happen as a result:  leaders may forget the true impact of their words and actions, and they may assume that what they are hearing from followers is what needs to be heard.  The scrutiny never really ends.  Followers continue to pay close attention to event he most offhand remark, and the more effective the leader is the more careful he or she must be, because followers may implement an idea that was a little more than a passing thought.  Followers don't tell leaders everything.  A second challenge for leaders in their ascendancy is to nurture those people whose stars may shine as brightly as—even brighter than—the leaders' own.  In many ways, this is the real test of character for a leader.  Many people cannot resist using a leadership position to thwart competition.  Authentic leaders are generous.


The General, full of wise saws.  One of the greatest challenges a leader faces at the height of his or her career is not simply allowing people to speak the truth but actually being able to hear it.  A current example can be seen in Howell Raines, the deposed executive editor of the New York Times.  Among the many ways he blocked the flow of information upward was to limit he pool of people he championed and, thus the number of people he listened to.  Raines was notorious for having a small A-list of stars and a large B-list made up of everyone else.  The two-tier system was unwise and ultimately a career-ender for Raines.  His  attitude and of his managing editor was that their way was the only way.  He should have been a good enough newsman to be able to tell the difference between acceptance and angry silence on the part of those who worked for him.


The Statesman, with spectacles on nose.  Shakespeare's sixth age covers the years in which a leader's power begins to wane.  The leader in this stage is often hard at work preparing to pass on his or her wisdom in the interest of the organization.  The leader may also be called upon to play important interim roles, bolstered by the knowledge and perception that come with age and experience and without the sometimes distracting ambition that characterizes early career.  One of the gratifying roles that people in late career can play is the leadership equivalent of a pinch hitter.  A leader is able to perform an even better job because he or she brings a lifetime's worth of knowledge and experience but also he or she didn't have to waste time engaging in the political machinations often needed to advance a career.


The Sage, the second childishness.  "When you mentor, you know that what you have achieved will not be lost, that you are leaving a professional legacy for future generations.  The reciprocal benefits of such bonds are profound, amounting to much more than warm feelings on both sides.  Mentoring isn't a simple exchange of ideas.  Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky lived among wild baboons and found that alliances between old and young apes were an effective strategy for survival.  Older males that affiliated with younger males lived longer, healthier lives than their unallied peers.  Age is neither end nor oblivion.  Rather, it is the joyous rediscovery of childhood at its best.  It is waking up each morning ready to devour the world, full of hope and promise.  It lacks nothing but the tawdrier forms of ambition that make less sense as each day passes.


Indeed, there is a time for everything and a thing for particular times.  The important take away from this article is that leadership is a journey, not a destination.    Everything changes, in time.  As a true leader, we need to know when our time is up and how to exit graciously.

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