Warren Bennis’ Great Groups


I discovered Bennis by accident as I was looking for another author.  The title Why Leaders Can’t Lead… was a contradiction of terms that made me check out the book, despite other assigned reading. My stereotypical expectation of a writer of business theory (staid, academic, boring outside the premises of business organizations) was altered by the manner by which Warren Bennis engages his readers.

Bennis refers to the Peter Principle management theory that employees and managers are promoted to a level of incompetence. A favorite quote from this book refers to leaders as individuals who do the right thing and managers as individuals who do things right. Because of this, “many an institution is very well managed and very poorly led” (p. 17). Therein is the unconscious conspiracy of leaders to immerse themselves in routine. A leader transcends routine and is a conceptualist with a vision for the destiny of his institution.

I decided to look into who Bennis was, and I learned that as the “guru” of leadership theory, he advised many presidents. The founder of Starbucks considers him a mentor. He taught at Harvard, Boston University, and M.I.T. prior to his thirty years at the University of Southern California. He passed away in August of this year, 2014.

I just finished his 1997 book, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. Again, the title called out to me from the library shelf during yet another course. He analyzes six Great Groups to unearth the secrets of collaborative geniuses. Bennis identifies the leader of a great group as

“almost always a pragmatic dreamer. They are people who get things done, but they are people with immortal longings. Often, they are scientifically minded people with poetry in their souls….people with an original vision…. A dream is the engine that drives the group….a promise on the visionary’s part that the goal is attainable.” (p. 20)

How were the Great Groups selected? For one, all stressed the imperative for collaboration among recruits who were hired for their excellence and talents that possibly surpassed their bosses’. Additionally, the recruits had rare intelligence, usually young (under thirty years of age) and possessed creativity that pushed boundaries.

Of the six Great Groups (Disney; Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Apple; the 1992 Clinton Campaign; the builders of Lockheed’s top-secret Skunk Works; Black Mountain College; and, the Manhattan Project), the narrative that attracted my attention is that of the pioneers of the personal computer, among them Vannevar Bush, Robert Taylor and Alan Kay. In a 1945 article, Dr. Bush describes a memex, ” a device in which the individual stores his books, records, and communications, …mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed …” (Bush (1945), as cited in Bennis, p. 64). Bush also described the use of keyboards and data stored in various forms. The description of Taylor, Kay and their founding of  the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), their vision, and the recruitment of followers who gambled on loyalty parallel the innovations set by Steve Jobs and, more currently, Google.

hightechhistory.com Courtesy, Gizmodo.

Steve Jobs & Apple II computer, CA. 1979, when he gained entrance to Xerox PARC.

Bennis concludes his noteworthy study with a list of take-aways (15):

  1. Greatness starts with great people.
  2. Great Groups and great leaders create each other.
  3. Every Great Group has a strong leader, that is, one who has the ability to recognize excellence in others.
  4. The leaders of Great Groups love talent and know where to find it. “They are confident enough to recruit people better than themselves.” (p.201)
  5. Great groups are full of talented people who can work together. Because of their loyalty to the cause, they are more tolerant of personal differences.
  6. Great Groups think they are on a mission from God.
  7. Every Great Group is an island – but an island with a bridge to the mainland.
  8. Great Groups see themselves as winning underdogs.
  9. Great Groups always have an enemy.
  10. People in Great Groups have blinders on.
  11. Great groups are optimistic, not realistic.
  12. In Great Groups the right person has the right job.
  13. The leaders of Great Groups give them what they need and free them from the rest.
  14. Great Groups ship.
  15. Great work is its own reward. Steve Jobs is quoted: “The journey is the reward.”



Bennis, W. (1990). Why Leaders Can’t Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bennis, W. &  Biedermann, P.W. (1997). Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. Reading, MA: Addision-Wesley Publishing Company.