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The Science of Leadership: Warren Bennis (Part 1)

Over the last year, Pocketblog has studied the work of many fine business thinkers.  It is time to turn our attention to Warren Bennis.

WarrenBennis

Bennis is not just an expert on leadership – which he undoubtedly is.  It was he who created the modern interest in the subject, with the book he co-wrote with Burt Nanus: ‘Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge’.

Bennis was greatly influenced by Douglas McGregor, who both taught and mentored him.  McGregor was influential, with his Theory X and Theory Y, in examining the ways we can manage colleagues at work, and influence their motivation.

The Story of Motivation in the Workplace

… is one of shifts towards and away from a prescriptive scientific perspective.  In a recent Pocketblog, I described how FW Taylor invoked ‘scientific management’ to create a repeatable process for optimising work-rates.  His follower, Elton Mayo then discovered that human factors can over-ride the simplistic approach to theoretically optimised efficiency levels.

It was Douglas McGregor who characterised these two approaches as Theory X (controlling, task-focused management) and Theory Y (more democratic, relationship-driven management).  McGregor argued powerfully in ‘The Human Side of the Enterprise’ and later books that Taylorism could not work sustainably in the modern world; Theory Y must dominate.

Enter Warren Bennis

Bennis followed McGregor in studying organisational development and looked to him as a mentor.  McGregor to a great extent shaped Bennis’s career and we will see more about that next week.

What Bennis contributed was a focus on the work of leaders, and what leadership means in an organisational context.  For all those of us who work in organisational development or leadership development, he has provided the foundations of modern thinking.

And for me, his principal contribution is the body of evidence he accumulated to show that leadership is open to everyone.  It is not a product of birth, of genes, or even of the type of school you went to.  It can be learned and developed like any other skill.

The Science of Leadership

There are two ways of doing science.  In my own discipline of physics, you can even study it formally in these two ways: experimental and theoretical.  Theoreticians dream up grand theories in response to limited experimental data, and then make predictions that experimentalists test.  It is only when the data prove the theorist wrong that science truly advances.  The smug feeling theoreticians get when the evidence supports their theory cannot mask the deeper knowledge that it can never constitute proof.  A theory is never more than one experiment away from falsification.

Experiments, on the other hand, are glorious.  They always yield knowledge.  Maybe it corroborates existing knowledge – which is comforting – or maybe it challenges it, from which progress arises – which is truly exciting.  Theorists know we are at the weak end of the process.

Bennis is a data gatherer.  He has not presented a grand theory of leadership.  Not for him: four leadership styles, six leadership roles or eight ways to lead.  Bennis and Nanus started their revolution in leadership thinking by surveying 90 leaders, from business, sports, the arts and exploration.

Some Ideas 

Bennis is perhaps best known for his tabulation of the differences between leaders and managers – which we mentioned a year ago.  The phrase ‘managers do things right: leaders do the right thing’ has become a commonplace – even turning up with very little adaptation, in a speech by Nick Clegg over the summer.

But many other ideas that we accept as commonplace were first articulated in their modern form by Warren Bennis:

Leaders learn from failure.
Adverse circumstances and a series of failures is a more valuable learning route than early and continued success.

Leaders create empathy
Leaders must bring people alongside their own views and they can only do this by empathising with their followers.

Leaders create great groups
Bennis and Nanus argued that great results emanate from great groups and it is the role of a leader to bring them together and and create the opportunities for them to thrive.

So here is the deal

Leadership can be learned and it was Warren Bennis who did more than any other thinker to put these ideas to us.

More in Part 2, next week.

Some Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

The Leadership Pocketbook
As you would expect, a lot of Bennis’s ideas suffuse this volume.

The Management Models Pocketbook
Looks at models of leadership that are often informed by Bennis’s thinking.

The Emotional Intelligence Pocketbook
Bennis has often stressed emotional intelligence as a vital leadership skill.

The Empowerment Pocketbook
Empowerment is what a leader should be about.

The Self Managed Development Pocketbook, and
The Learner’s Pocketbook
Bennis argued that leaders need to be learners.

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Theory X is dead: Long live Theory X

We don’t yet have a whole alphabet of management theories, but we are on our way.  It all started with Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.  Then, towards the end of his life, McGregor added a Theory Z, which was revived some years later by William Ouchi, describing the adoption of Japanese ideas of management in the United States.

Here are simple caricatures of the three theories.

Theory X assumes …

‘I hate my work, I only do it for the money, i don’t want to think for myself, indeed, I’d rather just do as little as I can.’

So my boss will favour carrot and stick incentives, presuming I need to be compelled to do the job I’m paid for.

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Theory Y assumes …

‘I like to work, it’s part of my life, i want to do well, and I will work hard if given the responsibility and recognition I deserve.’

So my boss will give me the responsibility I earn and reward me with the recognition I deserve.

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Theory Z assumes …

‘I want a long term career, I want to believe in what I do, I need to be led with a clear sense of purpose.’

So my boss will work hard to convince me of the benefits of my endeavours and enrol me as a committed employee.

Ever since McGregor

Having got to the end of the alphabet, new theories have turned backwards.  There is a Theory W – in fact several versions.  There are also a Theory U and  Theory T (there is a rather nice paper on these ideas around Utopian and Tragic overlays to McGregor’s original work here.)

The point is that, ever since McGregor, once strong assumption has prevailed.  In our modern world, Theory X is dead.  Nobody wants to be managed by being told what to do.

This blog is not about Politics

I had the whole story clear in my mind, and then, as I started writing, I came to realise that some might recognise Theory X in present UK Government attitudes to welfare.  Let’s put that debate to one side.

This blog is about Management

Is there a role for Theory X in the modern workplace?  Of the hundreds of people I have discussed this with in seminars and training sessions, I have encountered nobody who professes to prefer Theory X management.  But my sample is biased.  I train leaders and managers, and mostly in white collar industries and services.

So how do people – perhaps literally ‘at the coal-face’ prefer to be managed?  The truthful answer is ’I don’t know.’ But what I do know is that all leadership theory is predicated on the simple assertion that leaders need followers.

The concept of ‘Situational Leadership’ presupposes that different people like to be led in different ways – at different times.  So how plausible is it that nobody prefers to be told what to do sometimes, and that we can never need a little bit of a push or pull to get us to really perform.

Theory X and Time Management

Time management is a favourite topic of mine.  I am fascinated by the different ways we can get things done.  When you have an important but un-pleasant and complex task, how do you ‘make yourself’ do it?  For many of us, the answer draws upon classic time management guidance:

  • set a deadline
  • promise yourself rewards
  • break the task into simple chunks
  • discipline yourself to do one at  time

Theory X, anyone?

So here’s the deal

Theory X is as useful a model of motivation as all of the others.  The secret is to apply it respectfully, and only when it suits the situation.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

The Motivation PocketbookThe Motivation Pocketbook

The Time Management Pocketbook

The Influencing Pocketbook

The Working Relationships Pocketbook

The Workplace Politics Pocketbook

The Leadership Pocketbook

The People Manager’s Pocketbook

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Why Modern Management is so Hard

Modern managers have it hard.  In ‘the good old days’ managers could expect to simply dictate targets, set tasks and instruct their staff.  What a wonderful world that must have been for managers!

Leadership and Politics

The New Machiavelli, by Jonathan Powell Jonathan Powell has recently added the fourth corner of pyramid of books about Tony Blair’s administration, following those of Blair himself, Mandelson and Campbell.  It received less coverage than the others but what struck me was that he has used Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ as his framework.  So that’s the one I’ll be hoping for come the overflowing half-price offers at Christmas.  I’ve been fascinated by the Florentine since seeing him in a walk-on part in Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta’ at the RSC.  (John Carlisle played him and Alun Armstrong the Jew, Barabus.  What a fabulous year that was at the RSC!)

The Prince

ThePrince It sent me scurrying to my well-thumbed Penguin edition which, even when I bought it over ten years ago was three times as expensive at a charity shop than the cover price; which appears to make scrappy paperbacks a good investment. (Scrappy now: not when it was published, I have to add, as Pearson are also publishing two of my books later this year!)

Three passages caught my attention.  Firstly, it seems that written leadership theory goes back not to Machiavelli at all, as I would have said yesterday, but to the Bible and Moses, which Signor M cites in discussing the role of fortune.

Second – and make of it what your political leanings will – Machiavelli takes sides on the current economic debate in the UK, saying that the Prince should inflict all injuries in one go, and confer benefits steadily. So, at last we see where George Osborne’s playbook comes from.

Okay Mike, stop digressing

Third, and most relevant, Machiavelli draws clear distinctions between leaders and managers that resonate through the modern leadership thinkers who influence business training and management schools today.

I don’t have the space to recount my favourite leadership models, but suffice to say; most of them emphasise that the role of a leader is not to manage: it is to lead.

Leaders Lead: Managers Manage

A smart leader lets their managers get on with the day-to-day running of the business, and that creates an easy division which is often represented in tables like this:

Managers_vs_Leaders

I am sure many trainers reading this blog have facilitated sessions that have ended up with very similar flip charts!  This comparison between leaders and managers was first made by Warren Bennis, in response to an HBR article by Abraham Zaleznik in 1977.

So why do Managers have it so hard?

If a smart leader lets their managers manage, then they only have one job to do: leadership.  But modern managers are constantly – and rightly – being reminded that our society demands leadership at every level.

Blame Douglas McGregor if you will.  His same Theory Y encouraged both managers to stop their easy command and control behaviours (of which Machiavelli would heartily have approved) and encouraged leadership thinkers like Bert Nanus and Warren Bennis to articulate a truly modern theory of leadership.

Leadership at every level and bringing the best out of every employee goes beyond indulging uppity managers in calling themselves leaders; it demands that all managers are leaders.

So here’s the deal

So there we have it:  Leaders lead but managers manage and lead.  No wonder so many people would rather be a leader than a manager – it’s any easier job!

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

If you are just a leader, you’ll want:

The Leadership PocketbookThe Leadership Pocketbook

The Motivation Pocketbook

The Empowerment Pocketbook

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If you are a manger, you may also want:

The Manager's PocketbookThe Manager’s Pocketbook

The People Manager’s Pocketbook

The Management Models Pocketbook
(which contains two of the very best models of leadership)

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