Remembering Warren Bennis, a “giant in leadership”

Bennis, PhD ’55, developed his humanistic view of leadership at MIT Sloan; advised U.S. presidents

August 5, 2014

Warren Bennis, in an undated photograph; Photo courtesy MIT Museum

Warren Bennis, in an undated photograph

Warren Bennis, an influential scholar of leadership and a onetime MIT Sloan professor, died July 31 in Los Angeles at the age of 89.

Bennis taught at MIT Sloan from 1959 to 1967, joining the school during the formative years of modern management and leadership theory. He is known for advancing the idea that successful leaders demonstrate integrity, compassion, and a capacity for both collaboration and inspiration.

“For the first time, people were showing that the social sciences could actually be useful in helping create a new world,” Bennis said in an interview last year for MIT Sloan: Celebrating Our Past, Inventing the Future. “And part of the zeitgeist was ‘How do we create organizations where power is more evenly distributed?’”

Bennis first came to MIT at the recommendation of his mentor, Douglas McGregor. He completed a PhD in economics in 1955, studying under future Nobel laureates including Franco Modigliani. He then left MIT to teach at Boston University before returning in 1959—again at McGregor’s call—this time to teach at MIT Sloan and eventually to lead the school’s Organization Studies Group. He savored working as part of an “intellectual team,” he wrote in 2000 in Managing the Dream: Reflections on Leadership and Change .

“Sometimes when a group of talented people comes together, even if only for a short time, something wonderful happens,” he wrote. “Each individual energizes the others, teaches them and learns as well. When everything goes right, this creative collaboration produces something new and important.”

MIT Sloan professor John Van Maanen, who in the 1970s collaborated with Bennis on books and essays about interpersonal dynamics and organizational change, said that while Bennis will be remembered primarily for his writings on leadership, his more academic work was “insightful” and “substantial.”

“Warren was a terrific and generous editor and an elegant writer whose scholarly work attracted attention far beyond the specialized, social psychological fields from which the work derived,” Van Maanen said. “As a writer of essays more so than research tracts, he had a gift for the precise analogy and the crisp, unexpected, but memorable phrase.”

After leaving MIT Sloan, Bennis went on to write more than 30 books on leadership, including 1989’s On Becoming a Leader and 1993’s An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change. Business and political leaders—including Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan—looked to him for guidance, according to The New York Times .

He served as provost at the State University of New York at Buffalo and president at the University of Cincinnati. He joined the faculty at the University of Southern California in 1989 and worked there until his death.

“Warren Bennis was a giant in leadership and organizational behavior,” said MIT Sloan professor Thomas Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research. “I particularly like the way he combined scholarship, active engagement in putting his ideas into practice, and his public service perspective. I hope we can carry on what he stood for at Sloan.”