Top 10 Warren Bennis Quotes of All-Time


If Peter Drucker was “the father of management,” Warren Bennis will be remembered as “the father of leadership.”

When I discovered Warren Bennis’ passing last Thursday, I remembered this man’s remarkable legacy. Bennis was truly a leader of leaders. It was Bennis who first said leadership is not a set of genetic characteristics, but rather the result of the lifelong process of self-discovery. That process enables people to become fully integrated human beings who know themselves and bring out the best in others.

The first book I read from Bennis was his classic “On Becoming a Leader” which catapulted by leadership journey. Here are my top ten quotes from Bennis which I hope will inspire you to become a leader of leaders. 

1. “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

2. “Excellence is a better teacher than mediocrity. The lessons of the ordinary are everywhere. Truly profound and original insights are to be found only in studying the exemplary.” 

3. “Too many companies believe people are interchangeable. Truly gifted people never are. They have unique talents. Such people cannot be forced into roles they are not suited for, nor should they be. Effective leaders allow great people to do the work they were born to do.”  

4. “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

5. “Leaders must encourage their organizations to dance to forms of music yet to be heard.”

6. “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.”  

7. “If knowing yourself and being yourself were as easy to do as to talk about, there wouldn’t be nearly so many people walking around in borrowed postures, spouting secondhand ideas, trying desperately to fit in rather than to stand out.”  

8. “The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”

9. “No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, to use yourself completely – all your skills, gifts and energies – in order to make your vision manifest. You must withhold nothing. You, must, in sum, become the person you started out to be, and to enjoy the process of becoming.” 

10. “Failing organizations are usually over-managed and under-led.”

BONUS: Top 5 Leadership Books You Should Read by Warren Bennis:

1. On Becoming a Leader

2. Leading for a Lifetime

3. Still Surprised

4. Geeks and Geezers

5. Organizing Genius

  • Thanks for putting this list together, looks like I’ll need to take a look at his books.

    • Yes, Paul. You’ll most benefit from these books in your leadership journey!

  • Jody Noland

    Those are great words of wisdom. I love your moniker “organizational chiropractor.” That is priceless!

    • Thanks Jody for reading! Haha, yes organizational chiropractor – a very appropriate name for what I do! 😉

  • Charles Johnston

    Thanks Paul, I had missed that Warren had passed, what a great leader role model, from what I knew of him. Only read a couple of his books many years ago…good time to revisit

  • DS

    Really enjoyed the quotes Paul! Plus I’m not very familiar with his work. Thanks for the introduction.

  • Omar

    I like the quotes, thanks for putting those lines here. I didn’t know a lot about him. I already added few books to my list to read.
    Thanks again for the post.

  • These are some great quotes by a legendary leader. Thank you for sharing them.

  • Greg Basham

    Paul that was one of most insightful articles on Warren Bennis that I have read. I had the opportunity to speak with Warren in a conference call with the program chair for a conference I was chairing. While the dates didn’t work for him he recommended James O’Toole – his colleague and friend and that was not only a great success my CEO hired him to lead a leadership initiative.

    The discussion with Warren was informative and friendly and we left that call impressed with his desire to share and of course his insights. When Warren suggested we call him – he already knew the dates for him were not workable given his schedule!

    Warren Bennis truly exemplified what leaders do and how leaders are organized.

  • GarySweeten

    I worked closely with Bennis and saw both sides of his life. Side 1. Was his brilliant mind and ability to recall almost everything he read or heard. Side 2. Was his incompetent leadership. He almost destroyed The University of Cincinnati by his divisive, emotionally vindictive personality. His talks and books showcased his brain and theories. His daily operations and mean streak showed his heart.