BOOK REVIEW / When talent and power are nothing: An invented life - Warren Bennis: Century Business, pounds 12.99 (paperback)

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The Independent Online
Leadership is all the rage in management circles. But it was not always thus, and Warren Bennis was one of those who helped to bring it to the fore.

Now a professor of business administration at the University of Southern California, he could be said to have learned about the subject the hard way - as an administrator in the notoriously political world of higher education.

But in the preface to this collection of essays, subtitled Reflections on Leadership and Change, he points out that he also studied on the battlefields of Europe during the Second World War. 'Overnight, I learned that a leader is not simply someone who experiences the personal exhilaration of being in charge. A leader is someone whose actions have the most profound consequences on other people's lives, for better or for worse, sometimes for ever and ever.'

This experience, coupled with college studies at the feet of organisational behaviour guru Douglas McGregor, seems to have given him a broader perspective than many writers on the way businesses are run.

True, his main thrust is almost always corporate management. But, fittingly for a man who 30 years ago co-wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review predicting the end of the Cold War, he is never slow to see the overlap between business and politics. This link is especially apparent in the US, where the unelected executive enables presidents to call on many captains of industry, but British readers of this book will pick up resonances too.

After a somewhat self-conscious 'biographical sketch', the volume begins with that HBR piece - reprinted in 1990 in what Tom Peters, a fan, says in his foreword is a rare opportunity for a writer to say publicly, 'I told you so'.

He concludes with 'another stab at crystal-gazing' in a new essay arguing that the Second World War has finally finished in that federalism - whether in the guise of large corporations or collections of countries like the European Union - is now not only inevitable but to be desired, since it 'allows nations and corporations to have their organisational cake and eat it, too'.

So much for the future. The real meat of this engaging and convincing book lies between those two pieces. The Coming Death of Bureaucracy, from 1966, can be held to be at least partly responsible for the still-current fixation with slimming down and 'flattening' organisations.

More powerful, though, are essays on ethics, When to Resign and Followership - the under-analysed obverse of leadership.

Ethics remains a somewhat elusive concept in the business world. Although Professor Bennis says he is 'more hopeful' about the subject than when he wrote the piece a few years ago, his view that 'ethics and conscience aren't optional' is still true. As he says, 'Without conscience and ethics, talent and power amount to nothing.'

When people in high places seem increasingly reluctant to 'take the rap' for errors of their own or others' doing, the piece drawing on the author's own decision to resign from a university position offers a useful alternative view.

The thoughts on followership, though, provide a strong reminder that 'doing the right thing' is not solely an issue for the executive. The author acknowledges that subordinates sometimes pay the ultimate price for candour, 'but that doesn't relieve them of the obligation to tell their leaders what they may not want to hear'.

Consequently, he believes that the 'single most important characteristic' of the follower may well be a willingness to tell the truth. Quoting research by Rebecca Henry, a psychology professor at Purdue University, that shows groups are generally more effective than individuals in making forecasts, he says that organisations gain much from encouraging thoughtful dissent.

And to make the point, there are several examples from recent political history.

Ted Sorensen, a senior aide to President Kennedy, revealed that the best way of bringing his boss to his senses was by saying, 'That sounds like the kind of idea Nixon would have.'

And Nancy Reagan, in her memoir of the White House years, recalls chiding George Bush when he approached her rather than the President with reservations about another member of senior staff.

When he protested that that was not his role, she reportedly retorted: 'That is exactly your role.'