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12 May 2012
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Passion, Perspective and Leadership: Lessons from Warren Bennis

Reading the works of Warren Bennis, Founding Chairman of the Leadership Institute of the University of Southern California, is always stimulating and yet frequently unsettling, for Bennis places self-reflection and self-awareness of character at the heart of anything approaching a description of the ‘good leader’. I wonder to what degree we truly – truly - reflect upon, moreover are aware of the shortcomings of, our characters and our personal values when it comes to seeing ourselves as leaders.

Writing in his key paper The Leadership Advantage, Bennis asserted that character was the key determinant of fulfilling the leader role (1). And he wasn’t talking about ‘being a great guy’ or ‘always being there for the team’. He was talking about something much more grounded: “qualities of the heart” (2). His analysis of work performed with some hundreds of leader figures led him to conclude that effective leaders are contextualised by a passion for what they do. Their time, energy and commitment border on the level of those qualities one might devote to one’s partner, one’s parents; one’s children.  Indeed, Bennis is more interested in the possession of this passion than he is in the ability to bring perspective to a challenging situation: perspective, he advises, comes after passion, but never before.

This seems, to me, to get right to the core of the importance of leadership as something we might call, for want of a better expression, a ‘soft skill’. I always shy away from the use of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ in medicine, mainly because it fails to acknowledge the spectrum in between – the ‘hard’ neurological sign always wins the day over the softer, ergo less interesting, one. Yet we know from experience that those softer signs can, incrementally, tell a much more nuanced story than the hard ones they sit behind. Leadership is, in Bennis’s interpretation, a very nuanced and very human quality.

He goes on, in the same seminal paper, to affirm the importance of candour and what he terms ‘congruity’ – authenticity, feeling comfortable in one’s own skin – in any effective leader. He challenges us to scrutinise our own candour and congruity by telling us that really good leaders enshrine and exhibit the same degree of these qualities whether at home or at work. When did we last check ourselves against those particular criteria?

But of course, the requirements of an effective leader do not end there. Bennis is keen to point out that leaders will not achieve results from their own labours alone. A good leader is a catalyst, a facilitator, able to reflect in the moment to allow colleagues to shine with their own ideas, their own difficult questions; to express their own anxieties and concerns as freely as will their leader-figure. Put simply and succinctly, effective leaders know that there is no difference between becoming an effective leader, and becoming a fully integrated human being. I urge you to read the writings of Warren Bennis. You will come away from his work with both a renewed enthusiasm for the value of leadership and, more importantly, a sense of awe and respect for the personal demands it will place upon you. 

  1. Bennis W. 1999. The Leadership Advantage. Leader to Leader 12: 18-23
  2. Goleman, Daniel. Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence accessible via


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About the author

Darren Kilroy's picture

Darren Kilroy

Darren Kilroy FCEM M.Ed. Ph.D. is a Consultant in Emergency Medicine in Cheshire, and Director for Network Leadership and Development in Unscheduled Care. He is also Hon. Senior Lecturer in Emergency Care at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Clinical Lead for Unscheduled Care at NHS Stockport. His main areas of interest are the challenges of clinical and managerial engagement around emergent clinical commissioning models, and the role of clinical leadership within transformational change.


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