It’s odd – though mostly deeply sad – that James MacGregor Burns and Warren Bennis both died late last month, within a couple of weeks of each other. The death of neither man was untimely, Burns was 95 and Bennis 89. But together they leave a hole so large, so downright gaping, it’s not clear that it can ever be filled.
The field of leadership is not exactly fertile. To be more precise, over human history it has been wonderfully well endowed with great minds thinking great thoughts about how people should lead – and for that matter about how they should follow. Thinkers from Plato to Paine, from Machiavelli to Mill, from Locke to Lincoln, and from Freud to Fanon all spent the better part of their lives on leadership. But the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st have not been rich or replete with first rate minds thinking first rate thoughts about how people organize themselves – about how they can be led, should be led, are led in a world characterized by change at a ferocious clip.
So to those of us who remain relentlessly engaged in the study of leadership, the near simultaneous loss of Burns and Bennis is particularly painful. They both loomed large over the field, known for their intelligence and integrity, for their voluminous productivity, for their grace and generosity, and, perhaps above all, for their shared concern over the human condition.
Withal, for all their expert tilling of a certain soil, it’s likely that Bennis, like Burns, will be better remembered for what he was than for what he did. Bennis’s grin preceded him – his joy in life so inordinately infectious that no one was immune. Not a bad tribute – which is why he, like his approximate contemporary, is a loss as personal as professional.