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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : An Invented Life : Fueled by the desire to be everything his family was not, Warren Bennis created a world full of power and prestige. But now the business guru is wrestling with thoughts of fun.

June 19, 1994|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bennis deadpans: "I expect any day now I'll get an invitation to speak on a (management) panel (to them too). And I can assure you I'll do it."

The talk continues with a compendium of maxims ("The manager has his eye on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon"), one-liners ("Trying to lead college faculty is like herding cats") and, of course, Bennis' prescription for management success in the late 20th Century: Dump the autocratic, "command-and-control" techniques of the past in favor of a workplace that encourages employee self-esteem, creativity, dissent, empowerment and teamwork.

The result of this switch from "macho to maestro," he promises, will be more and better ideas from employees, jumps in productivity and a stronger competitive edge. Executives must do less managing and more leading, he adds. They must possess a balance of vision, optimism, expertise, ambition and personal integrity: "The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing."

The principles are distilled from his extensive interviews with such leaders as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, basketball coach Pat Riley, General Electric boss John F. Welch Jr. and a Philadelphia zookeeper who used to be a government administrator. ("He told me there was virtually no difference between the two jobs," Bennis quips.)

For these and other nuggets of wisdom, the executives at the Clemson University-sponsored conference have paid about $350 apiece--and many seem absorbed by the presentation. "I wish I could follow him around for about half a year," says a Texas Instruments official familiar with Bennis' work.

If that were to happen, however, the official might learn that Bennis' myriad articles, books and speeches are frequently identical--"I don't know how many truths there are," he explains--and even his conversations can sound canned. Several seemingly spontaneous anecdotes and answers to a reporter's questions, for example, turn out to be lifted from his lectures.

Indeed, much of Bennis' current management philosophy is the same as what he advocated during the 1960s, only then it was considered too radical and now it's widely accepted. "I was prematurely right," he declares.

And it's paying off.

Publishers are reissuing his books and essays. Business Week describes him as fascinating and provocative. And Vice President Gore says Bennis' 1989 volume "On Becoming a Leader" is must reading for his advisers. In May, Gore even had Bennis conduct a daylong seminar for his Washington staff.

Rival business guru John Kotter of Harvard says Bennis--who also has consulted for the likes of Ford Motor Co., Polaroid and TRW--is one of only a handful of speakers in the world who has conquered the senior-management group lecture market. "Aside from Tom Peters on occasion, the only other person I bump into is Warren," Kotter says.

Still, Bennis isn't exactly a household name. His closest brush with that kind of fame, he says, came when People magazine photographed him dancing with advice columnist Ann Landers, whom he dated during the early 1980s.

White-haired, manicured and eternally poised, Bennis leads a somewhat Brahmin existence. He has a fondness for limos, lives on the shore in Santa Monica ("Hang a left at the very end of the continent," he tells visitors) and wears casual denim work shirts with Armani tags on the pocket.

A Jaguar sits in his garage (when it's not in the shop) and an original Rauschenberg hangs by the front door of his starkly furnished split-level home.

It is a lifestyle driven by a "search for power and potency" that Bennis traces to early childhood. As he explains in an autobiographical essay published in his 1993 book "An Invented Life," he was fearful of his mother (who insisted he become a professional accordionist), unattached to his older twin brothers and disappointed in his father, a perennially unsuccessful entrepreneur who opened and closed a succession of candy stores, malt shops and soda stands.

Bennis recalls the day his father lost his last steady job as "one of the most wretched and despondent of my life. Without realizing it then, I vowed never again to feel such utter hopelessness."

In essence, he decided to become everything his family was not.

Thus, the invented life began. He underwent six years of psychoanalysis during the 1950s, pored over Ralph Waldo Emerson and turned his own writing into "self-therapy" by choosing academic topics involving unresolved personal conflicts. He broke past his shyness by forcing himself into public-speaking roles. And he transformed his mind by devouring information. Bennis says he reads about 70 books a year (mostly history and nonfiction), skims another 400 and looks at three newspapers a day. And he has hired a computer consultant to teach him electronic information-gathering.

He also claims to "talk to his soul"--usually by looking for messages in his dreams--but acknowledges that he "may be spiritually deficient."

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