Seven ages of leadership

Warren Bennis got his first taste of leadership as a green, 19-year-old lieutenant during World War II. In January's Harvard Business Review, he says that those days were in many ways typical of first leadership experiences anywhere. Bennis, who has written more than 25 books on leadership and change and currently serves on the faculties of the University of Southern California and Harvard Business School, says that Shakespeare's seven ages of man apply to leaders as well. He explained to Kathleen Melymuka how knowing what to expect at each age could help you survive and grow as a business leader.

Q:Tell me what your introduction to leadership in wartime Belgium taught you about the "infant" and "schoolboy" stages of leadership.

I was a kid when I joined a seasoned infantry company, but I was able to abandon my ego to their talents, and they helped me be of use to them. They trained me. An IT officer isn't an infant but, still, allowing some vulnerability is a way of enrolling people to help you become a better leader.

Q: You mention that people often form an opinion of a new leader before they've even met. In IT, that opinion is often negative. How can a new IT leader get out from under a negative initial perception?

We had a new IT officer in an organization I know, and what surprised everybody was that he was not just a geek. He was open. He had a sense of humor, a broader conception of life. He kept those eyebrows raised. People are often intimidated by technical people and a language they don't know, and they like to see the human characteristics of the person come through. Whatever their domain, the successful leaders really seem to keep the organization's goals in mind, not just their own specialty.

Q: In the third age, what should an IT worker be careful of as he moves up to management?

There's always a little unease dealing with former peers. First, you have to be concerned about management of resentment of people who didn't get (the promotion). Be very aware not to step on the toes of people who feel hurt. Second, the rules do change, and you may get a different perception of former peers when you're in position of being their leader. The roles you play really change, and you've got to be aware of that from both points of view. Try to keep them from feeling that they're being disenfranchised because you can't spend the time you used to with them. And part of the strain is giving up what you love to do in order to manage people who are doing it.

Q: You say that a novice leader has to learn who to pay attention to. How does a leader distinguish the energy-sappers from the people who deserve priority?

It's rough. People who seek you out at first may feel under-recognized and want to make up for things they were not getting from their previous boss. They can be needy, and you can't always trust what they say. When you're coming in as stranger, you have to trust your instincts about sizing people up. You can be helped by people who are highly valued and respected in the organization. Get their opinions about who you should spend time with. Use them to help you evaluate your sources of information and whether these are constructive people who share your goals. You have to identify the right co-conspirators to create change.

Q: In the next age, the leader becomes comfortable in the role. What are the dangers at this point?

As a leader, something you're not used to is that your words take on added weight to those who report to you. You might mumble, "Wouldn't it be nice if . . . " and suddenly it happens, and you say, "But that's not what I really wanted." There's a thing I call the Pinocchio Effect. It's like that game where you whisper something around a circle, and it becomes a total grotesque. It's the same with a leader. What he wants can get totally distorted. So you have to be very careful. What may seem a simple idea you're just puzzling about can be translated into action before you know it. Be more careful about your words and how they will be interpreted.

Q: Can you talk a little about the challenge of nurturing people -- even those who may ultimately outpace you?

The best leaders are educators, and they really do enjoy bringing on people who can outperform them. It takes security and self-confidence and self-esteem to do that well. I've known people who kept down brilliant people because they felt they would be upstaged. But most leaders are proudest of a bench of terrific people behind them. This is something organizations don't do enough of. I don't know any that has a roster of terrific mentors and rewards them.

Q: When the leader is at the height of his power, a big challenge seems to be to keep his ears open. What should he be listening for?

Disconfirming voices. He needs to widen the number of people he ordinarily speaks with. When George Bush was so surprised at the anger toward the U.S., a reporter asked him where he got his information. He said from his direct reports and "others I trust." That's not enough. It has to be much wider. It pays to listen to people at levels way below you -- both drilling down and widening. As a leader, you have to be totally aware and keep modeling that you really want the truth; no kidding.

Q:The statesman age, when power begins to wane and the leader passes on his wisdom, can happen early in IT. How can an IT leader be effective during this age with the technology changing beneath him?

You have to keep up with changes in your field, especially (as) an IT person. There is more change there than perhaps in any other part of business. You need to have a special appetite for learning and keep up with the excitement. Recent examples: Jerry Grinstein, 71 -- just named CEO and chairman of Delta Air Lines (Inc.). John Reed, (64), takes over as interim chair of the New York Stock Exchange board. Harry Stonecipher, 68, just took over (The) Boeing (Co.). Three examples of geezers who have been recalled to active service. Why them? In all cases, they're continual learners. They keep alive, robust, physically active. You can even hear it in their voices. You can even take me: Do I sound like I'm 79?

Seven Stages

In a famous soliloquy from As You Like It, Shakespeare maps out the seven stages of a man's life. Warren Bennis says those phases apply just as well to the development of a leader.

Infant: The would-be leader Challenge: Recruit a mentor.

Schoolboy: The novice Challenge: Make a quiet entry and feel your way.

Lover: Moving up the ranks Challenge: Set boundaries. Learn who and what to pay attention to.

Soldier: Comfortable in the role Challenge: Weigh your words and actions carefully. Nurture others.

General: At the height of power Challenge: Listen for dissent. Rally the troops and act.

Statesman: Power on the wane Challenge: Use perspective and wisdom to serve as a pinch hitter.

Sage: The retiree Challenge: Serve as mentor for a young leader.