University of Southern California

On Creativity and Collaboration
Warren Bennis Explains What it Takes to Lead and be Part of Innovative Enterprises
December 2, 2011 • by News at Marshall

What does it take to make a great group? Warren Bennis, distinguished professor of business administration, management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business and a renowned leadership expert, shared his insights during a conversation with Martin Kaplan, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism’s Norman Lear Center. Below are highlights from the far-ranging conversation, held Nov. 1 at USC’s Davidson Conference Center.

Martin Kaplan: I’ll start with an essay you wrote called, “The End of Leadership.” You say most nontrivial problems require collective solutions.

Warren Bennis: Yes, that’s true and even more so today.

MK: If most nontrivial problems require collective solutions, there are some definite barriers to achieve that, which I want to touch on. You say, "We resist the idea of collective creativity. We cling to the myth of the lone ranger, the romantic idea that great things are usually accomplished by a larger than life leader working alone."

WB: I’m glad you brought that up. I suspect when you think of Cubism, you think of Picasso. We leave out Braque who worked with Picasso for seven years to create Cubism. When we think of the Sistine Chapel, we think of whom? Michelangelo. We don’t think of the 13 assistants and 200 people who worked on it.

American society is based on the idea of the individual, based on the pursuit of happiness. On the principle of an individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Think of John Wayne. There’s something about that that is still appealing. There’s a cultural blindness about the idea of teamwork. The reality is not sexy. The reality is that we could not do it without anyone else helping us.

MK: There are some paradoxes to creative collaboration, which you write about. In one, you describe great leaders as pragmatic dreamers.

WB: I think dreamers are important. But pragmatic is important too because you know why? We have to set a deadline. You know what? We need to have a product to get out the door.

MK: You said that people in great groups are irrationally optimistic.

WB: Yeah, how can you not be? Put yourself in the mind of Steve Jobs in 1971. The innovations of this century will be those which take an experience and makes it better and quicker.

MK: Warren made a little summary of what makes great groups. I thought it would be great if we could hear about that.

WB: There are seven points. Shared vision is the first takeaway. The second is having skin in the game. It’s a gambling term I guess and it means anteing up, investing in it. What’s your investment in it? Third, we need each other. There is an understanding that it couldn’t be done without the other. Fourth is product, something you can get out the door.

Fifth is abandoning your ego to the talent of others. I know more terrifically bright CEOs have failed just on that one thing. Talented leaders fail most often when they don’t allow and create a platform for others to dance or sing. Six is trust and seven is diversity.

Even today we have a long way to go for diversity. I’m not just talking about ethnicity, but I’m talking about being really different. And when you are part of a great group, an idea may seem a little nuts, but you really to listen to it and you treasure it.


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.