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Harvard Business Review Press
Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders

Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders

by Warren G. Bennis, Robert J. ThomasWarren G. Bennis


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Today's young leaders grew up in the glow of television and computers; the leaders of their grandparents' generation in the shadow of the Depression and World War II. In a groundbreaking study of these two disparate groups-affectionately labeled "geeks" and "geezers"-legendary leadership expert Warren Bennis and leadership consultant Robert Thomas set out to find out how era and values shape those who lead. What they discovered was something far more profound: the powerful process through which leaders of any era emerge.

Geeks and Geezers is a book that will forever change how we view not just leadership-but the very way we learn and ultimately live our lives. It presents for the first time a compelling new model that predicts who is likely to become-and remain-a leader, and why.

At the heart of this model are what the authors call "crucibles"-utterly transforming periods of testing from which one can emerge either hopelessly broken, or powerfully emboldened to learn and to lead. Whether losing an election or burying a child, learning from a mentor or mastering a martial art, crucibles are turning points: defining events that force us to decide who we are and what we are capable of.

Through the candid and often deeply moving crucibles of pioneering journalist Mike Wallace to new economy entrepreneur Michael Klein, from New York Stock Exchange trailblazer Muriel Siebert to environmental crusader Tara Church, Geeks and Geezers illustrates the stunning metamorphoses of true leaders. It also reveals the critical traits they share, including adaptability, vision, integrity, unquenchable optimism, and "neoteny"-a youthful curiosity and zest for knowledge.

Highlighting the forces that enable any of us to learn and lead not for a time, but for a lifetime, this book is essential reading for geeks, geezers, and everyone in between.

Author Biography: Warren Bennis is Professor and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, and the author of over thirty visionary books on leadership. Robert J. Thomas is an Associate Partner and Senior Fellow with the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change and award-winning author of What Machines Can't Do.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578515820
Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press
Publication date: 08/08/2002
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.58(w) x 9.48(h) x 0.93(d)

Read an Excerpt

Leading and Learning for a Lifetime

In one of his best-known essays, E. B. White, sage of the New Yorker, wrote: "There is a bright future for complexity, what with one thing always leading to another." As he so often does, White wraps a profound idea in the simplest of packages-not surprising for a man who dared to use the word crepuscular in a children's book and created an eight-legged thought leader in Charlotte, the oracular arachnid of Charlotte's Web.1

What White distills in his observation about complexity is a basic truth about leading and learning-about the way we discover something valuable, give it a tug, and find that it inevitably leads us to another discovery and then another. The ability to learn is a defining characteristic of being human; the ability to continue learning is an essential skill of leadership. When leaders lose that ability, they inevitably falter. When any of us lose that ability, we no longer grow.

At its heart, this is a book about leadership and learning and about the almost magical process by which some people succeed, however they define success, not just once but again and again. It is a book about cross-generational leadership that looks, for the first time, at two groups of leaders-our youngest and our oldest, the geeks and the geezers-and asks them to tell us what they have discovered about leading, learning, and living well in the course of their very different lives and times. It is a book that grapples with such compelling questions as why some people are able to extract wisdom from experience, however harsh, and others are not. It asks successful geeks to share the secrets of their youthful triumphs and distinguished geezers to tell us how they continue to stay active and engaged despite the changes wrought by age. What all these people have to say is so important, so useful, that we believe it will help readers find their own best strategies for leading and learning, not just for a time but for a lifetime.

The predictable format for such a book would simply be to ask well-known leaders to share their secrets-that is what most books on leadership do. But this book goes beyond personal revelations to postulate a theory of leadership. An important part of that theory is recognition of the role that distinctive periods in history play in producing leaders. All of us come of age in a particular place and time-an era-that shapes us in large and small ways. Although we are rarely aware of this influence from day to day, our era determines choices both mundane and profound, from the music we prefer to the things that we long for, the things we take for granted, and much of the emotional coloration of our lives. Our geeks and geezers are no exception. In the two chapters that follow, we will attempt to place our geeks (most of them under 30) and our geezers (most in their 70s and 80s) in the historical contexts that produced them. We know that this is a little like trying to write a twelve-page version of the collected works of Shakespeare. But in order to understand what our participants have to say, it is important to keep in mind some of the major forces that shaped them.

The world has changed more in the eighty or so years since our oldest leaders were born than it had in the previous millennium. To name a single remarkable difference, the world is now "wired," a term that would have made little or no sense to the man in the street of 1920. We believe that leadership in this world of ever-accelerating change requires both the wisdom of our elders and the insights of younger people who, despite their youth, have already demonstrated their leadership ability. We often hear of the impact that 70 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1963, are having on every aspect of our lives, including the global economy. Too little has been said about the way the world is being transformed daily by another, even larger, cohort-the 85 million people who are now between the ages of 2 and 22. This is the first cohort to grow up visual, virtual, and digital, and we ignore it at our peril.

A New Model of Leadership

As we explain in the preface, this book started out as a study of both young and old leaders and how era influences leadership, but it evolved into something more. As a result of our research for the book, we have developed a theory that describes, we believe for the first time, how leaders come to be. We believe that we have identified the process that allows an individual to undergo testing and to emerge, not just stronger, but equipped with the tools he or she needs both to lead and to learn. It is a model that explains how individuals make meaning out of often difficult events-we call them crucibles-and how that process of "meaning-making" both galvanizes individuals and gives them their distinctive voice. That model (shown in figure 1-1) describes a powerful chain reaction of change and growth.

Much of this book is devoted to explicating that model and showing how it is reflected in the development of leaders of all ages. The process we will explore is one that allowed Nelson Mandela not simply to survive, but to emerge from twenty-seven years in a South African prison as the most powerful moral leader since Gandhi. It is the process that forged a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Golda Meir, and a Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the process that led one of our geezers, Sidney Rittenberg, to pioneer business ties between the United States and China after spending sixteen years in Chinese prisons during the 1940s and 1950s, and that produced gifted geeks like educational activist Wendy Kopp and serial entrepreneur Michael Klein. Our model explains how leaders develop, in whatever era, and predicts who is likely to become and remain a leader. In the pages that follow, you'll discover why some people are able to lead for a lifetime, while others never seem able to unleash remarkable gifts. You'll see why learning to learn is key to becoming a leader. And you'll discover why the factors that produce leaders are the same ones that predict something far more important than professional success: They are the very factors that allow us to live happy, meaningful lives.

Defining Our Terms

When we first began talking about leadership as a lifetime process, we used polite, even euphemistic, terms to describe the two groups that most interested us-youthful leaders who discovered their abilities early and older ones who were able to create leadership roles for themselves decade after decade. (For a complete list of those we studied, see table 1-1 and the brief biographies in appendix A.) At first, we spoke of "younger leaders and mature leaders," of "Greatest Generation leaders and those from Generation X." But as our conversations became more animated and intense, we dropped the polite terms and opted for a more convenient, if less flattering, shorthand. We began referring to our two groups as geeks and geezers.

Although these terms may seem self-explanatory, let us be precise about them. The geeks whose leadership fascinated us are young (35 and under); most of them are involved in the now troubled but still vital New Economy. In deciding upon our geeks, we looked for outstanding achievement at a notably early age, combined with a thoughtful ability to articulate their experiences, observations, and views. We consciously sought out men and women who had led or even built organizations-having a good idea or a "killer app" alone would not qualify someone for inclusion if they did not also prove themselves capable of leading people.

The geeks in our study are a varied lot. They are the heads of dot-coms and other information-based organizations, including Sky Dayton, founder of Earthlink and Boingo Wireless; chocolatier Dan Cunningham; and digital iconoclast Ian Clarke, founder of FreeNet. They are accomplished executives in more conventional businesses, like Elizabeth Kao at Ford Motor Company and Elizabeth Altman at Motorola. A few started organizations in order to serve causes dear to them, such as Tara Church, who was an 8-year-old Brownie when she founded the environmental group Tree Musketeers, and Lorig Charkoudian, who founded Baltimore Community Mediation, which helps community members resolve disputes nonviolently. Whether or not they work in the technology sector, they are geeks in the sense of "computer geeks"-young people who have been working with digital technology for as long as they can remember. Theirs is the first cohort to have had computers in elementary school. People with 1s and 0s in their blood, they interact with machines as easily as with other human beings-more easily, critics say.

The leaders we termed geezers are the grandparents of our geeks. That's literally true in the case of Bob Galvin, vice chairman of Motorola, who is the grandfather of Brian Sullivan, CEO of Rolling Oaks Enterprises. These geezer men and women (far more of the former than the latter, sad to say) are widely admired for their wisdom and skill. Some are retired, but most continue to lead major corporations and other successful organizations. Reduced to what National Public Radio's David Brancaccio calls "the numbers," our geezers are all 70 and over. When selecting geezers, we were especially interested in people who may have changed arenas but continue to be involved in important work and engaged with the world. The geezers who fascinate us are people like Mel Brooks, who, at 75, launched a new career for himself as a songwriter and won twelve Tonys-the all-time record-for the Broadway show he helped create from his manic film classic The Producers. You need only to have seen Brooks giddily accept Tony after Tony during the 2001 telecast of the theatrical awards show to realize that creativity and vitality are functions of factors other than age. Indeed, his strategy for dealing with his age is to ignore it: "I don't look in the mirror and I don't look in the calendar," he has said. Thus, we were intrigued by leaders like Frank Gehry, designer of the most talked-about building of recent times-the gleaming, undulating Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. He turned 70 in 2000 and yet continues to play the ice hockey he has loved since he was a boy in Toronto. Other geezers include Visa International founder Dee Hock, former Securities and Exchange Commission head Arthur Levitt, Jr., former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan (who once played ice hockey against Gehry), Wall Street pioneer Muriel Siebert, CBS News editor and correspondent Mike Wallace, and UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

Recording Leadership in Images and Stories

We wanted our leaders to share their experiences because we know the power of stories and their ability to convey complex, nuanced information. We wanted the leaders to tell us, in their own words, the aspirations, drives, and events that shaped them, the lessons they learned, and the insights they gained. At the same time, we wanted to collect data systematically so we could see what patterns emerged when that data was analyzed. In order to collect information that could be collated and compared, we asked each person the same set of questions, but we also gave them the opportunity to make any observations they deemed relevant. We decided to videotape the interviews whenever possible, because we knew taping would preserve a wealth of information that no transcript could capture, from body language to subtle shifts in emphasis and energy. Watching the tapes later did indeed remind us of the catch in a voice that marked some unforgettable event, the brio with which they talked about their work, the visible anguish that some showed as they remembered instances of tragedy and loss, the tenderness with which mentors were recalled. We reasoned that this mixed-media approach would give us the best of both worlds-empirical data that would allow us to draw valid conclusions and an invaluable archive of images and stories of leadership that would long linger in the reader's, and the viewer's, mind.2

After several refinements and considerable tweaking, the questionnaire we administered asked such key questions as: What were the defining moments in your life? How did you get from here to there? How do you define success? How did you define it at 30? What makes you happy? What role has failure played in your life?

Remember that the questionnaire (appendix B) was only a starting point, albeit a critical one. Some of the most telling information emerged late in these interviews of two hours or more, after the subjects, assuming the interviews were essentially over, had forgotten the video camera and relaxed.

The resulting 43 interviews with leaders ranging in age from 21 to 93 are powerful in their insight and candor. As we asked our subjects to think deeply about their lives, we realized that we were really writing collaborative autobiographies. We were asking them to reveal how they saw themselves, to share the lives they had both lived in reality and constructed in their own minds. In a sense, we were asking them to tell us who they believed themselves to be. Insights from the interviews will form the core of the next two chapters. Chapter 2 elaborates our arguments about the importance of era and values in shaping leaders while focusing on the formative period for our geezers, 1945-1954. We turn to the geeks in chapter 3 and learn what leadership, success, and fulfillment look like to those who came of age in the years 1991-2000.

Although Bennis and Biederman have proclaimed the death of the Great Man (and Woman) in Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration and elsewhere, this project literally focused the camera on the person at the top and gave only fleeting acknowledgment to the network of people who make any complex organization or enterprise a success.3 We made a deliberate decision to emphasize the leader rather than his or her inevitable partner, the group, because we had so much that is new and important to say about leaders. However, it is still true that "None of us is as smart as all of us" and that one is usually too small a number for greatness. In virtually every case, our leaders, both young and old, are successes because of their ability to identify, sustain, and inspire other talented people.

Our goal in structuring this book is to convey the excitement we experienced as we listened to our geeks and geezers and began to formulate our underlying model of leadership development. In the brief sections that follow we post a road map of the main elements of that model and how they emerged, beginning with the impact of era on leadership aspirations and behaviors, exploring the power of crucible experiences in shaping leadership values and character, and closing with an introduction to the distinctive capacities of men and women who lead for a lifetime.

The Impact of Era

Era is an aspect of leadership that has not received the attention it deserves, given how profoundly it shapes individual leaders. We see era as important, not because it defines individuals, but because it presents them with a shared history and culture and a specific arena in which to act. As Oliver Wendell Holmes observed: "A great man represents a strategic point in the campaign of history, and part of his greatness consists of his being there."

Eras are quite different from generations, those periods that occur every eighteen years or so and define all who fall within them. The eras we are talking about are characterized by defining events, and may occur every twenty years or less. Members of the same generation may react quite differently to the opportunities and challenges each new era creates. Certainly the era in which we grew into maturity remains an important force throughout our lives. But in the course of a long life, we experience many eras. The last twenty years, marked by the advent of the Internet and the end of the Cold War, can be seen as one coherent era. It is not yet clear whether the terrorist attacks of 2001 marked the end of that era of American hegemony and unprecedented prosperity.

Analog is the umbrella word that best describes the era that produced our older leaders, digital the term that characterizes the era of our younger leaders. Many of the older subjects mastered such analog tools as the slide rule, an object as foreign to most of our geeks as a record album or a typewriter. An in-depth analysis of the pervasive impact of digital technology is beyond the scope of this book. But it is obvious that the computer and the Internet have had a profound effect on those who grew up with them (as well as on those who didn't), from shrinking the size of their mental globe (almost anyone on the planet is only a keystroke away) to providing instant access to information that may or may not be accurate. One of the geeks we interviewed, Ian Clarke, is so much a child of the digital age that he says he can't imagine what he would have become without the Internet-perhaps, he says with a shudder, "an accountant and miserable."

What are some relevant characteristics of the world in which our older leaders were formed? How is the world different today? The analog world was one that valued linear narrative and thinking. It believed in organizational hierarchy and chain of command. The digital world is nonlinear and has ditched the corporate pyramid for the flat organization. To use psychologist Karl Weick's insightful metaphors, the world born during the Depression and World War II could be understood using a map. To make sense of the Wild West of the digital world requires a compass. As Weick explains: "Maps, by definition, can help only in known worlds-worlds that have been charted before. Compasses are helpful when you are not sure where you are and can get only a general sense of direction."4

Whether or not their parents owned TV sets, geeks are children of television. The widespread introduction of television in the early 1950s was a watershed in leadership as in so many other things, from family life to the arts. The people born and raised after that world-changing event are forever marked by their ease in processing a tsunami of visual information at breakneck speed. Today's ordinary American is exposed to more novel visual images in a single day than the average Victorian experienced in a lifetime. You need only look at how differently the generations learned fundamentals. As children, geeks didn't learn the alphabet in a measured singsong, as did virtually everybody over 50. They shouted it out, one letter chasing another, as they learned to do on Sesame Street. They never slogged through grammar lessons of heart-breaking tedium. Instead, "Conjunction Junction" and the other upbeat lessons of Schoolhouse Rock were set to jazz riffs, tunes still sung aloud on social occasions in Silicon Valley and other capitals of the New Economy.

Even the controlling metaphors of the two eras differ. Older leaders were trained to think of the world in Newtonian, mechanical terms. Younger ones tend to look at the world in terms of living organisms and biological systems that are constantly changing and evolving. Men and women over 70 experienced-and understood-conventional warfare, as horrible as it is. Men and women under the age of 30 know only the random nightmare of terrorism and the ever-present threat of biological and cyberwarfare. Experience was valued by an earlier era-implicit in the idea of seniority is the notion that valuable lessons are learned only over time. Fifty years ago, the leader was expected to have survived a period of testing and was thought to be the better for it. Winston Churchill expressed this attitude when he said: "I rate the capacity of man by, first, courage and ability; and second, real experience under fire." Today's society tends to value what Zen Buddhists call the "beginner's mind." It implies fresh insight unfettered by experience. In this more contemporary view, the compelling idea is the novel one at an angle to conventional wisdom, itself a phrase that implies a regressive reliance on the status quo. Perhaps no one articulated the nature of the beginner's mind better than the composer Berlioz when he said of Saint-Saëns: "He knows everything. All he lacks is inexperience." Yesterday's leaders were specialists who sought and trusted answers. Today's tend to be generalists who know they need to ask the right questions.

What are the implications of era for the way our geeks and geezers think about the leader's role? We found three key differences between geeks and geezers when we compared their hopes and aspirations at the same age (roughly 25-30). First, geeks have bigger and more ambitious goals than geezers did at the same age; they aspire to "change the world" and "make history," whereas geezers were concerned with "making a living." Second, geeks place far more emphasis on achieving balance in their work, family, and personal lives than did geezers at a comparable age. And third, geeks are far less likely than geezers to have heroes or to have had their image of a successful leader shaped by a hero. No issue or attitude divided the two groups more dramatically than that of the drive among geeks for work-life balance, which we will explore in much greater detail in chapter 3. Taken as a whole, these differences, we suggest, are directly linked to the eras in which each group matured as leaders.

We also uncovered convergences in worldview among these old-er and younger leaders. For example, both groups are avid learners: They are captivated by learning new things and are constantly on the lookout for ways to enhance their ability to learn. These geeks and geezers are also alike in that they forever strain to transcend limits, whether those limits are individual, like strength or learning ability, or institutional, like racial and/or sexual discrimination.

However, the most dramatic tie connecting the men and women we interviewed was their common experience of events that transformed their behavior and self-understanding. The discovery of this common tie propelled us from a simple, albeit very interesting, comparison of geeks and geezers to a much deeper investigation of how people become leaders.

The Power of the Crucible

We found that every leader in our study, young or old, had undergone at least one intense, transformational experience. That transformational experience was at the very heart of becoming a leader. The descriptive term we found ourselves using is crucible. The American Heritage Dictionary defines crucible as "a place, time or situation characterized by the confluence of powerful intellectual, social, economic or political forces; a severe test of patience or belief; a vessel for melting material at high temperatures." A crucible was the vessel in which medieval alchemists attempted to turn base metals into gold. That the alchemists inevitably failed in their audacious attempts doesn't negate the power of the crucible as a metaphor for the circumstances that cause an individual to be utterly transformed.

Because crucibles are so critical, we will devote all of chapter 4 to them. As the event or relationship that forged a leader, the crucible is at the center of our model. The crucibles that produced our leaders were as varied as being mentored, mastering a martial art, climbing a mountain, and losing an election. Sometimes the crucible was an upbeat, even joyous experience. Video game expert Geoff Keighley, 21, remembers his whole life changing in second grade, when he made a magician's table out of a microwave box, put on a top hat, and performed a dazzling magic trick at a friend's birthday party. "It set me apart," said Keighley, remembering how the wonder and respect of his young audience filled him with a sense of power and uniqueness.

Sometimes the crucible is a tragedy. Pioneering television journalist Mike Wallace was uncertain whether he should give up his prestigious, well-paying job with a local station and try for a network slot when, in 1962, his oldest son, Peter, a student at Yale, fell off a mountain while on vacation in Greece. Two weeks after Peter disappeared, Wallace found the boy's body. "That was really the turning point when I said, 'To hell with it,'" Wallace recalled. "I'm going to quit everything and do what I want to do now."

One of the harshest crucibles in our study was that which shaped businessman Sidney Rittenberg, 79. In China in 1949 Rittenberg was jailed as a spy by former friends in Chairman Mao's government. He spent sixteen years in prison, the first year in solitary confinement and total darkness except when he was being interrogated and the remaining fifteen years in permanent lighting without the benefit of darkness. He emerged certain that absolutely nothing in professional life could break him.

The crucible need not be a horrendous ordeal. Motorola vice president Liz Altman, 34, didn't go to prison. But she was utterly transformed by the year she spent in a Sony factory in Japan, finding her way in an alien corporate world whose broad cultural differences-particularly its emphasis on groups over individuals-were both a shock and a challenge to a young American woman. Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, was shaped by the Wall Street of the 1950s and '60s, an arena so sexist that she couldn't get a job as a stockbroker until she took her first name off her resume and substituted a genderless initial. Thrust into the alpha-male world of Wall Street, Siebert wasn't broken or defeated. Instead, she emerged stronger, more focused, and determined to change the status quo that excluded her.

World War II was a crucible for almost all our older male leaders, many of whom were transformed by the terrible responsibility of leading other men into battle. The war was also a crucible for many in that it allowed them to recognize for the first time that they had the ability and desire to lead. Common Cause founder John Gardner, 89, identified his arduous training as a Marine as the crucible in which his leadership abilities emerged. "Some qualities were there waiting for life to pull those things out of me," he told us, with characteristic eloquence. The battlefield and basic training are recognized rites of passage after which people are different; their values and the way they see the world are forever changed. The quality of that change is captured in the observation by many Vietnam veterans that the war was in Technicolor, but everything before and after was in black and white.

Mentor-protégé relationships constitute another, very powerful, kind of crucible. The importance of mentoring has become almost a cliché of management literature, but, as we will show in chapter 4, mentoring shares with other crucibles a powerful process of learning, adaptation, and transformation that is intensely individual, whether it occurs in a family or an organization. Consider, for example, Michael Klein, a young man who made millions in Southern California real estate while still in his teens. As Klein told us, his mentor was his grandfather, Max S. Klein, who created the paint-by-numbers fad that swept the United States in the 1950s and '60s.5 Klein recalled that he was only 4 or 5 years old when his grandfather approached him and offered to share his expertise in business. The grandfather noted that Michael's father and aunt-Max's only children-had no interest in business and told young Michael, "You're never going to get any money from me . . . but I'll tell you anything you want to know and teach you anything that you want to learn from me." We learn from stories like Klein's that teaching is never solely the function of the mentor. The protégé can also be a teacher, a guide to the mindset and skills of a younger generation that allows the mentor to continue learning and to cope more successfully with inexorable change.

Whether the crucible experience is an apprenticeship, an ordeal, or some combination of both, we came to think of it much like the hero's journey that lies at the heart of every myth, from The Odyssey to Erin Brockovich. It is both an opportunity and a test. It is a defining moment that unleashes abilities, forces crucial choices, and sharpens focus. It teaches a person who he or she is. People can be destroyed by such an experience. But those who are not emerge from it aware of their gifts and goals, ready to seize opportunities and make their future. Whether the crucible was harrowing or not, it is seen by the individual as the turning point that set him or her on the desired, even inevitable, course.

Creating Meaning Out of the Crucible Experience

Leaders create meaning out of events and relationships that devastate nonleaders. Even when battered by experience, leaders do not see themselves as helpless or find themselves paralyzed. They look at the same events that unstring those less capable and fortunate and see something useful, and often a plan of action as well. A powerful example is that of Vernon E. Jordan, civil rights pioneer and presidential advisor. In his 2001 memoir Vernon Can Read!, Jordan describes the vicious baiting he received as a young man from his employer, Robert F. Maddox.6 Jordan served the racist former mayor of Atlanta at dinner, in a white jacket, with a napkin over his arm. He also functioned as Maddox's chauffeur. Whenever Maddox could, he would derisively announce, "Vernon can read!" as if the literacy of a young African American were a source of wonderment. So abused, a lesser man might have allowed Maddox to destroy him. But Jordan wrote his own interpretation of Maddox's sadistic heckling, a tale that empowered Jordan instead of embittering him. When he looked at Maddox through the rear-view mirror, Jordan did not see a powerful member of Georgia's ruling class. He saw a desperate anachronism who lashed out because he knew his time was up. As Jordan writes: "I do not mean just his physical time on earth-but I believed that the 'time' that helped shape him was on its way out. His half-mocking, half-serious comments about my education were the death rattle of his culture. When he saw that I was in the process of crafting a life for myself that would make me a man in some of the same ways he thought of being a man, he was deeply unnerved."7 The home in which Jordan was a servant was the crucible in which, consciously or not, Jordan imbued Maddox's cruelty with redemptive meaning. And thus are leaders made.

Nelson Mandela used his powerful character and imagination to thwart his jailers' attempts to dehumanize him. "If I had not been in prison," he told Oprah Winfrey in an interview in 2001, "I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life, and that is changing yourself." Notice how Mandela made lemonade from the most bitter of lemons. He saw himself not as a passive victim-someone who was imprisoned by others-but as an individual who had been "in prison." Instead of allowing his jailers to define him, Mandela fashioned a heroic identity for himself-one that inspired millions in Africa and elsewhere and was instrumental in ending apartheid and creating a new, multicultural South Africa. For Mandela, the crucible was both an external reality and something he created in the process of imbuing it with meaning.

Much of the leadership literature focuses on the traits or habits of leaders. In fact, every individual has a unique set of obstacles as well as assets that he or she brings to the table. Whether the bar is poverty, insecurity based on some physical attribute (Mike Wallace's teenage acne), or ethnic or racial discrimination (architect Frank Gehry was so troubled by widespread anti-Semitism that he changed the family name from Goldberg shortly before his first child was born), everybody enters the lists with a burden, a perceived reason for not succeeding. Ford Motor Company executive (and geek) Elizabeth Kao expressed the concept well when she said: "Everybody has their own wall to climb." One of the key differences between leaders and nonleaders, we found, is the ability of leaders to transmogrify even the negatives in their lives into something that serves them. For leaders, the uses of adversity are genuinely sweet.

What Makes a Leader

An important part of our leadership model is what lies on the other side of the crucible-the qualities that define lifetime leaders and learners, qualities that we will discuss at length in chapters 4 and 5. The one key asset all our leaders share, whether young or old, is their adaptive capacity. The ability to process new experiences, to find their meaning and to integrate them into one's life, is the signature skill of leaders and, indeed, of anyone who finds ways to live fully and well. Of all our subjects, none showed greater adaptive capacity than Sidney Rittenberg. Thrown into a Chinese jail, confined in a pitch-dark cell without any explanation, Rittenberg did not rail or panic. You wonder what you would do in such dreadful circumstances, if you would be able to come out whole. Within minutes, Rittenberg recalled matter-of-factly, a stanza of verse popped into his mind, four lines read to him as a little boy:

They drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win.

We drew a circle that took them in.8

That bit of verse (adapted from "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham) was the key to Rittenberg's survival. "My God," he thought to himself, "there's my strategy. There's my program." Evidence of the power of Rittenberg's ability to adapt and survive is Rittenberg Associates, the consulting firm that he founded and continues to run, which helps American companies do business with the Chinese. As his example so vividly reminds us, bitterness is maladaptive.

Optimism is an element of what health psychologists term hardiness, a rubric for the cluster of qualities that equip people for serial success (see chapter 5 for a fuller discussion of these qualities). Tenacity and self-confidence are others. But leaders share less obvious assets as well. As Saul Bellow says of the character very like himself in his novel Ravelstein, they are all "first-class noticers." Being a first-class noticer allows you to recognize talent, identify opportunities, and avoid pitfalls. Leaders who succeed again and again are geniuses at grasping context. This is one of those characteristics, like taste, that is difficult to break down into its component parts. But the ability to weigh a welter of factors, some as subtle as how very different groups of people will interpret a gesture, is one of the hallmarks of a true leader.

One of the best ways to define good leadership is to study bad leaders. Although we explore this approach at length in chapter 5, a single instance is instructive here: Shakespeare's tragic Roman general Coriolanus. A great warrior, a man with a strong moral compass, Coriolanus has only one flaw-his utter inability to reach out to the people of Rome and engage them in his vision. Rereading the play in the context of leadership, we couldn't help thinking of Coriolanus's mother, Volumnia, as the ancient Roman equivalent of an executive coach saddled with a particularly thick-headed client. Talk to the people, she encourages her son again and again. But Coriolanus doesn't get it. He fails to grasp the expectations of the people or how they will respond to his aloofness. He is convinced that reaching out to the populace would be a form of pandering, that it would require him to sacrifice his integrity.

Finally, before we conclude this overview of our leadership model, we need to say something more about one of the most exciting ideas to emerge from our research. We discovered that every one of our geezers who continues to play a leadership role has one quality of overriding importance: neoteny. The dictionary defines neoteny, a zoological term, as "the retention of youthful qualities by adults." Neoteny is more than retaining a youthful appearance, although that is often part of it. Neoteny is the retention of all those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy. Unlike those defeated by time and age, our geezers have remained much like our geeks-open, willing to take risks, hungry for knowledge and experience, courageous, eager to see what the new day brings. Time and loss steal the zest from the unlucky, and leave them looking longingly at the past. Neoteny is a metaphor for the quality-the gift-that keeps the fortunate of whatever age focused on all the marvelous undiscovered things to come. Frank Gehry designs buildings that make architects half his age gasp with envy. Neoteny is what makes him lace up his skates and whirl around the ice rink, while visionary buildings come to life and dance inside his head.

Walt Disney, of all people, did a good job of describing his own neoteny. "People who have worked with me say I am 'innocence in action,' " he wrote. "They say I have the innocence and unselfconsciousness of a child. Maybe I have. I still look at the world with uncontaminated wonder."9

The capacity for "uncontaminated wonder," ultimately, is what distinguishes the successful from the ordinary, the happily engaged players of whatever era from the chronically disappointed and malcontent. Therein lies a lesson for geeks, geezers, and the sea of people who fall in between. In the next two chapters we'll see how two profoundly different eras influenced the motivations, values, and aspirations of these men and women.


1. E. B. White, Charlotte's Web (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).

2. Warren Bennis and Patricia W. Biederman, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 1998).

3. Karl Weick, "Legitimization of Doubt," in The Future of Leadership, ed. Warren Bennis, Gretchen Schweitzer, and Thomas Cummings (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

4. The senior Klein was a classic American entrepreneur of his generation who had left an unsatisfying job with General Motors to strike out on his own. As the owner of the Palmer Paint Co. in Detroit, he applied the assembly-line methods he learned in auto-making to his factory, but his chief assets were the drive and imagination that were unleashed when he left his corporate job. Always looking for new markets for his product, Klein immediately saw the potential when the head of his art department, Dan Robbins, proposed a do-it-yourself kit that would allow amateurs to create professional-looking paintings. Robbins had borrowed the idea from Leonardo Da Vinci, who numbered the different areas of his paintings so his assistants would know what colors to use. Klein made the crucial decision to nix the abstract contemporary designs that Robbins originally proposed in favor of landscapes, bullfights, kittens, and other subjects that appealed to buyers in America's burgeoning suburbs. The subject of an exhibit at the Smithsonian in 2001, the resultant paint-by-number phenomenon made history.

5. Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., and Annette Gordon-Reed, Vernon Can Read! A Memoir (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2001).

6. Ibid., 9.

7. Edwin Markham, "Outwitted," in Cary Nelson, ed., Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

8. Dave Smith and Walt Disney, The Quotable Walt Disney (New York: Hyperion, 2001).

Excerpted from, Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders, by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas. Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College. All Rights Reserved.

Table of Contents

1Leading and Learning for a Lifetime1
2Geezers: The Era of Limits23
3Geeks: The Era of Options51
4Crucibles of Leadership87
5The Alchemy of Leadership121
6A Passion for the Promises of Life157
Appendix ABiographies181
Appendix BInterview Questions199
About the Authors223

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