BOOK REVIEWS · Leadership

MANAGING PEOPLE IS LIKE HERDING CATS – Warren Bennis (1999)

Managing People is Like Herding Cats is a book that explores the principles of effective leadership at all levels.  Renowned leadership scholar and USC professor Warren Bennis writes, “Be humble.  Stop trying to ‘herd cats’ and start building trust and mutual respect.  Your ‘cats’ will respond.  They will sense your purpose, keep your business purring, and even kill your rats.”

The book contains three sections.  The first section explains the leadership crisis in America.  The author maintains that true leaders are a rare find today.  Leaders who stand on principle and cast vision are few and far between.  Central to this section is issue of trust.  The primary proposition is that leadership cannot exist in an environment of “non-trust.”  The author insists that leaders are highly focused, able to inspire trust and bring hope to a given organization.  They listen deeply to constituents which builds trust.  “Effective leaders put words to the formless longings and deeply felt needs of others.”  The essence of the first section is that America presently faces a leadership crisis.  Someone must stand in this leadership gap or the decline will continue.

Section two details the qualities of the kind of leader that is needed in this generation.  Bennis makes a sharp distinction between a leader and a manager.  The manager does things right; the leader does the right things.  The manager administers; the leader innovates.  The manager maintains; the leader develops.  The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.  The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.  Bennis maintains that our country needs a new generation of leaders, not managers if we have any hope of surviving.  He discusses four things people look for in a leader including 1) purpose, direction or meaning, 2) trust, 3) a sense of we-can-do-it optimism; and 4) results.  Further, he lists the four competencies of leaders including management of attention (they get everyone on the same page and working together) , management of meaning (they communicate the vision), management of trust and management of self (they are aware of their strengths and nurture them).  Finally, in a broad stroke of the pen, Bennis adds ten vital traits of dynamic leaders.  They include 1) self-knowledge, 2) openness to feedback, 3) eager to learn and improve, 4) curious, risk takers, 5) concentration at work, 6) learn from adversity, 7) balance tradition and change, 8) open style, 9) work well with systems, and 10) serve as models and mentors.

Section three is about change and leadership.  The author discusses how to avoid disaster during change.  Central to the discussion is transforming culture which is a key challenge that every leader faces.  Bennis adds, “Management is getting people to do what needs to be done.  Leadership is getting people to want to do what needs to be done.  Managers push.  Leaders pull.  Managers command.  Leaders communicate.”

Bennis has written a thought-provoking and challenging book.  While he writes from the perspective of a secular business professor, many of the principles can be directly applied to the church.  The distinction between a manager and a leader is very helpful.  His advice should be utilized in today’s over managed and under-led church.  Indeed, a leadership crisis not only exists on a national scale but in the local church as well.

4 stars

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