University of Southern California

Bennis a Leader in Human Impact, Too
Professor Honored for Leadership Research
October 29, 2007 • by News at Marshall

By David Bloom

If the measure of a man can be found in the people he has affected, then the measure of USC Marshall's Warren Bennis must be wider than the Mississippi River. An event marking the latest honor in the leadership guru's illustrious career drew a remarkably diverse group of admirers impacted by his thinking, writing and teaching over the past six decades.

Speakers ranged from a 20-something former student whose career path crystallized in a short conversation with Bennis to an 80-something industrialist who has known Bennis since World War II.

The occasion was Bennis' receipt of the Distinguished Leadership Award from the International Leadership Association, a 1,200-strong organization on six continents. Previous recipients include civil rights activist and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James MacGregor Burns and the New York Fire Department.

"It's fitting that Warren be part of this," said ILA President Cynthia Cherrey, now Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs at Tulane University and a former long-time USC administrator. "He brings many to him and makes them feel special."

That was evident from speakers who repeatedly talked of Bennis' impact on them and on USC since he joined the university in 1980, after stints as president of the University of Cincinnati, as a professor and administrator at SUNY-Buffalo, MIT, Harvard University and Boston University. Bennis has written 28 books, including the influential "On Becoming a Leader" and his latest, "Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls."

"He's my little secret in my back pocket when I have a bad day. When I'm in Warren's presence, I just feel happy," said Betsy Meyers, who met Bennis when he was board chairman and she was executive director of the Center for Presidential Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Meyers is now COO of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Meyers laid out several characteristics that she said made Bennis unique:

  • His curiosity about life, as shown by a circle of friends of all ages;
  • His willingness to share credit
  • His gratitude and appreciation
  • His sense of humor
  • His desire to treat everyone respectful

"The university wouldn't be anywhere near what it is today without you," said Mike Singer, CEO of Strategic Partners and one of Bennis' first USC students. After Bennis' class was twice cancelled, a dismayed Singer visited, because he wouldn't get another chance to take the course.

Bennis put together a one-on-one class for Singer, assigning books such as Robert Caro's "The Powerbroker" and then discussing them weekly. The books remain a treasured part of Singer's library, but not nearly so treasured as the conversations then and since.

"Those hours with you made a tremendous difference in my life," Singer said.

Harman International Industries founder and Chairman Sidney Harman, who has known Bennis since they were both young soldiers, quoted Tennyson’s poem, "Ulysses," before adding his own rambunctious postscript about the man he teasingly called "Sonny."

"How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use," Harman quoted, declaring, "The beauty of this kid is that he continues to shine in use."

After all the praise, a beaming Bennis talked, closing with a brief poem, "Late Fragments" by Raymond Carver:

Did you get what you wanted from this life?
Even so, I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on this earth.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.