In a moment of serendipity at the library, a book title popped out at me from the business section, where I rarely am found despite a long-ago major in economics. The book, called “On Becoming a Leader,” immediately captured me with its insight and candor about what’s wrong in America: A lack of authentic leadership and stagnant workplaces that dehumanize most while enriching those at the top.
The book is a classic written by Warren Bennis, a former organizational consultant and business professor at the University of Southern California who was called the leading authority on leadership by the Financial Times, The Economist and Business Week. Bennis makes a compelling case that the problem with American business leadership is a culture of short-sighted self-interest, fear and failure to adapt creatively to a changing world.
I was fascinated because Bennis in some ways sounds remarkably like Pope Francis, who I see as the great leader and prophet of our time. I read “On Becoming a Leader” after finishing Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.”
Bennis wrote the first edition of the book in 1989 and updated it in 2003 and again in 2008. The extraordinary changes in technology during those two decades made the vacuum in American leadership even more evident, and Bennis concludes that we need leaders with integrity more than ever.
Francis and Bennis sound uncannily similar in their assessments of the broad cultural decline caused by the failure of leaders who lack vision and courage, the collapse of ethics in business and politics, and the dominance of a mindset of greed, short-term thinking, and self-interest.
Pope Francis in his encyclical calls for a response to world marred by selfishness and violence to a new culture of care for people and the earth. He envisions an “ecological conversion” based on people becoming aware of their interdependence with natural ecosystems and the likelihood of self-destruction if we continue to degrade the environment. Caring for the Earth is not optional for Christians, Pope Francis says. Filled with love and praise for God, Pope Francis suggests we adopt lifestyles of gratitude and self-giving rather than selfishness and seeking to acquire what we do not have. The Pope also calls for promoting sustainable development through new and more cooperative ways of creating local, national and international policies.
While many people of faith and advocates of social change have received the encyclical with enthusiasm, the Pope’s fiercest criticism has come from American politicians and conservative pundits who position themselves as defenders of the status quo in American business. Give more breaks to businesses, they say, and all will be well. If businesses flourish, so do workers, the myth goes.
That’s why I find Bennis’ analysis to be of particular interest. Bennis, who spent a long career advising and training American business leaders, made his view clear: lack of authentic leadership for a generation has been stifling U.S. adaptation to the rapidly changing world economic system.Too many narrow-minded business leaders have failed to adapt creatively to the changing context of a world that is “shrinking, heating up, growing rancorous and ambitious,” Bennis says.
Corruption has become commonplace in American business. For years the corporate world has been rocked by financial scandals motivated by obsessions with the bottom line. In the latest headline, on Aug. 17 Citigroup settled with the Securities & Exchange Commission for deceiving 4,000 wealthy investors in a scheme estimated to have cost investors $2 billion between 2002 and 2008.
Meanwhile, despite the corruption in leadership at many corporations, CEO salaries continue to increase to unprecedented levels, while the salaries of average workers stagnate.
Bennis is prescient when he says, “The disappearance of that middle class, made up of people who had come to believe that loyalty and hard work would bring security and a comfortable standard of living, may well turn out to be the most important economic story of the new century.”
The general lack of American leadership, according to Bennis, goes back decades and crosses institutions, from corporations, to universities, the Catholic Church and the government. A short list of spectacular failures in leadership include: the 2008 financial meltdown; the wave of corporate scandals involving accounting fraud, illegal loans and insider trading; the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that was compounded by a cover-up by U.S. bishops; and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s slow and inept response to the New Orleans residents devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
American leadership is not the only problem. Pope Francis decries the absence of leadership at a global level, saying of the environmental crisis: “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance.”
Both Pope Francis and Bennis are visionaries who grasp the reality of what’s happening to people, see the complex interconnections between things, and have a gift for speaking truth to power. They offset their criticism with a hopeful vision of a world led by people who grasp the big picture and are creative, willing to take risks, and are authentic and humane in their approach to working with others.
Of course, there are major differences between Pope Francis’ encyclical and Bennis’ book, which were written for different audiences and different reasons. Pope Francis addresses all people and grounds his vision in praise of God and gratitude for all that exists. He writes motivated by the urgency of climate change and a global social crisis in which billions of poor people are suffering and the livability of the planet for future generations is in question. Pope Francis reminds us that we are called to respond to God’s love for us with actions showing love of our brothers and sisters who share this planet.
Bennis’ book is addressed primarily to leaders in American businesses. He offers a secular vision of a trustworthy business community characterized by innovation, adaptability and commitment to workers. He imagines businesses of the future as small communities of people who collaborate and are freed to use their gifts in creating valued products, rather than organizations that in the scramble for short-term profits treat people as interchangeable liabilities in the bottom line. Bennis concludes that the best leaders continue to grow in self-knowledge, take risks, learn from mistakes, and are collaborative with others. They also have an inspiring vision, a distinctive voice, integrity and the ability to adapt to change.
I highly recommend reading both Pope Francis’ encyclical and Bennis’ “On Becoming a Leader” as a refreshing counter to the misleading and selfish rhetoric that permeates much of our public discourse. Rather than pandering to our worst instincts, both Francis and Bennis offer bracing critiques of the errors of our time, then offer hopeful visions of what people and institutions can be at our best.
Below are some selected comparisons of what Pope Francis and Warren Bennis have to say on remaking our world and ourselves:
The Roots of the Problem
On the nature of the social crisis…
Pope Francis: “The social dimensions of global change include the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity. These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.”
Bennis: “The United States stock market has imploded twice in this young century, erasing trillions of dollars of wealth in the process. But the gap between the rich and poor in the United States remains dangerously wide. The American middle class, which once trusted in its future because of swollen 401(k) s and soaring home equity, has been devastated…. Growing number of have-nots and have-too-littles worry daily about the skyrocketing cost of health care, ignoring symptoms and splitting pills. Afraid of another Great Depression, some Americans cling to jobs they hate, fearful that their children won’t be able to afford college. Meanwhile, certain social and environmental problems continue to haunt us. Poverty and drug addiction perpetuate an American underclass that fills our prisons to overflowing, and the oceans continue to rise.”
On the need to recover a sense of the common good…
The widespread social breakdown exemplified by violence, addiction, job insecurity, and weakening of family and community ties is a result of self-centered consumption and the focus on individual rights. A recovery of the sense of the common good is essential.
Pope Francis: “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs…”
Bennis: “There has always been a tension in the American character between individual rights and the common good…. That tension is as fierce today as it has ever been. Whenever upward mobility and good citizenship diverge, we have less and less in common, and less and less that is good. Our Founding Fathers based the Constitution on the assumption that there was such a thing as public virtue.”
On the danger of obsession with short-term thinking focused solely on profits…
Pope Francis: “…we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention…”
Bennis: “The concrete contemplation of the facts here and now suggests that too many Americans believe that the bottom line isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, and America is strangling on that lack of vision.”
On the decline in ethics associated with the focus on instant gratification and the bottom line…
Pope Francis: Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously [of the environmental crisis] has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification.
Bennis: “Long before Enron became synonymous with corporate corruption, scholarly studies linked a lack of professional ethics to a business climate that not only condones greed, but rewards it… The corporate ethical decline is a direct result of a bottom-line mentality.”
On the problem of specialization and focus on technology rather than a larger vision focused on human purpose…
We are allowing technology developed by narrow-minded specialists to shape our culture rather purposefully addressing the main issues related to human existence in an integrated and meaningful way.
Pope Francis: “The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests. … Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence.”
Bennis: “Too many [universities] produce narrow-minded specialists who may be wizards at making money, but who are unfinished as people. These specialists have been taught how to do, but they have not learned how to be. Instead of studying philosophy, history and literature – which are the experiences of all humankind – they study specific technologies. What problems can technology solve, unless the users of that technology have first grappled with the primary questions?”
On treating workers as disposable rather than as valued people…
Pope Francis: We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment… Yet the orientation of the economy has favored a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves.”
Bennis: “Only the most innovative organizations have begun truly to tap into their primary resource, their people, much less given them the means to do what they are capable of doing. Indeed, many have taken the opposite tack, eschewing loyalty to workers, pruning rather than nurturing, and focusing almost exclusively on the bottom line.”
The Way Forward
On the purpose of organized life…
Pope Francis: What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?
Bennis: “What are the purposes of the corporation and other organizations in today’s world? The case for viewing a company or other organization as a community is especially compelling in a world where we spend more and more of our lives in the workplace and grow ever hungrier for greater balance between work and personal life. Even as we are shackled by our pagers and cell phones to the workplace, we long for work that seems meaningful enough to justify missing out on great chunks of our children’s lives. Leaders of every kind of organization need to be thinking long and hard about such issues as meaningful rewards for workers and humanizing the downsized workplace.”
On the meaning of work…
Pope Francis: “We are convinced that ‘man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life.’… We need to remember that men and women have ‘the capacity to improve their lot, to further their moral growth and to develop their spiritual endowments.’ Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.”
Bennis: Since the release and full use of the individual’s potential is the organization’s true task, all organizations must provide for the growth and development of their members and find ways of offering them opportunities for such growth and development. This is the one true mission of all organizations and the principal challenge to today’s organizations.”
On the role of organizations…
Pope Francis: “If everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life…. In this sense, social ecology is necessarily institutional, and gradually extends to the whole of society, from the primary social group, the family, to the wider local, national and international communities. Within each social stratum, institutions develop to regulate human relationships. Anything which weakens those institutions has negative consequences, such as injustice, violence and loss of freedom….
Bennis: “Because the organization is the primary form of the era, it is also the primary shaper. The organization is, or should be, a social architect – but this means that its executives must be social architects, too. First of all, they must guarantee that their organizations are honest, ethical institutions. Then, they must redesign their organizations in order to redesign society along more humane and functional lines. They need, in a word, to be leaders, rather than managers.”
On hope and an appeal to authentic purpose…
Pope Francis: “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.
Bennis: “An organization should, by definition, function organically, which means that its purposes should determine its structure, rather than the other way around, and that it should function as a community rather than a hierarchy, and offer autonomy to its members, along with tests, opportunities, and rewards, because ultimately an organization is merely the means, not the end.”