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August 2003

The Leadership Traits of the Geeks and Geezers


Bestselling author and researcher Warren Bennis concludes that leaders young and old — so-called "geeks" and "geezers" — have been profoundly affected both by the eras they grew up in and by "crucible" experiences. The result gives rise to a new leadership model with significant implications for associations.
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Warren Bennis' study of leadership qualities based on age reveals the differences on person's historical context can make, yet underscores the similar, sometimes surprising, competencies that all leaders use.

Executive Update's Associate and Web Editor Kristin Merriman-Clarke reports.

At age 32, Wendy Kopp remains the executive director of a national nonprofit organization she founded almost 13 years ago to provide college-graduate teachers to underprivileged communities.

Frances Hesselbein, age 70ish, is board chair of the Leader to Leader Institute (formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management) but built her longtime reputation as a CEO during her 24-year turnaround of the Girl Scouts of America.

Kopp is what leadership guru Warren Bennis calls "a geek" — a leader age 21 to 35. Hesselbein is a "geezer" — a leader age 70 to 93. It was the differences and similarities in leadership styles and abilities — specifically, the impact of era — between these two age groups that attracted the attention of Bennis and his colleague, Robert Thomas, and led to their latest book, Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

Their revelations led to a much different book than originally envisioned. "It turned out that this book revealed how people evolve as leaders — how they get their sea legs, so to speak," Bennis explains. "And when we compared the nature of the major leadership qualities of geeks and geezers, we discovered that they shared four key factors. These struck me as being timeless factors that were, in a way, culture-free."

Great Depression versus Dot-Com Collapse
Bennis and Thomas hypothesized that era has an underestimated impact on the type of leaders who emerge. Geezers, for example, grew up in an era that included World War II, the Cold War, the birth of television as a social influence, the battle over civil rights, and strong public trust in government. The "organization man," who often spent his entire career serving a single company, was the standard in the business world, and the Great Depression left indelible memories of worry and financial fragility in all workers born around 1925.

This "Era of Limits" (1945 - 1954), say Bennis and Thomas, led leaders to embrace a command-and-control style that often mimicked the military organizations in which many workers had served; a rigid work ethic and a great need for security; and general acceptance of the "one-life, one-career" concept.

As a result, geezers often

  • Have had only one to three jobs in their careers;

  • Consider their work a vital part of their "social identity;"

  • Have not generally recognized the value of diversity until late in their careers;

  • Consider "paying your dues" essential;

  • Learn in traditional ways such as reading and classrooms;

  • Are unfamiliar with the pressures of two-career families.

Geeks, on the other hand, matured in the "Era of Options" (1991-2000), which included MTV, AIDS, terrorism, globalization, the end of the Cold War, weapons of mass destruction, high public distrust of government, and influential special interest groups.

The organization man disappeared as competitive speed and innovation led to flatter, more nimble organizational structures. Dot-com companies flamed out of nowhere, driven by the powerful tool that promised to eliminate political, economic, and societal boundaries once and for all: the Internet.

As a result, geeks often

  • Are committed to making a life, not just a living;

  • View team-building, engagement, and partnerships as essential to leadership;

  • Recognize that with diversity come new perspectives, ideas, and insights;

  • Desire and believe that they can better the world;

  • Are experimental and entrepreneurial, less loyal to employers;

  • Learn through both traditional and experiential means;

  • Are more secure with insecurity and change;

  • Have multiple careers, thanks in part to longer life expectancy.

Of all of these, Bennis identifies attitudes toward work-life balance as the most dramatic gap between the two groups: "The geezers like Bob Crandall, former chairman of American Airlines, were saying, 'What is this crap about work-life challenges? To be a leader, you have to have passion. You've got to put everything into it!' And I remember one former editor of The New York Times shouting, 'If you want a family, you shouldn't be working here!' Now, that's geezer talk.

"The geeks, 32 years and younger, have a really different view," Bennis continues. "They may be working just as hard, but the geeks often have a working spouse, and they often have children. The work-life balance issue really had to be at the forefront of their existence, even though at times they were knocking themselves out, whereas the geezers grew up typically with a wife who took care of all of those chores herself. Geezers weren't given a license to either complain or think about it, and when they look back, some of them have a lot of guilt. But it's a difference in the climate today."

The Commonality of Crucibles
Bennis and Thomas also turned up numerous similarities in their interviews, along with one surprise: the critical importance and commonality of "crucibles." Crucibles are "intense, transformational experiences" from which a leader changes dramatically and emerges much wiser.

This commonality forms the heart of a proposed leadership model by Bennis and Thomas. In the book, Tara Church is a geek who, in 1987, founded a U.S. nonprofit agency — the Tree Musketeers — at the ripe age of eight. She describes her crucible as a Brownie scout camping trip.

Because of drought, the Brownies discussed whether to use paper or plastic plates for meals. Church's mother talked about deforestation and, Church says, "the role of trees in holding soil in place and how they filter pollutants from the air. … It was the first time in my life that I remember being absolutely terrified. … And then we had an idea … that we should plant a tree. So we did. And that was the single most empowering experience of my life. Realizing that - while terror, while challenges, while all of these roadblocks can obstruct our view of what lies ahead — something so simple as getting a shovel and digging a hole and putting a tree in it can change the world."

Crucibles are "often opportunities," says Bennis. The key distinction between crucibles is not whether they are considered negative or positive but whether the leader "dived in versus was pushed in. … Both types of crucibles involve important learning and a degree of stress."

The research of Bennis and Thomas has profound implications for associations, which simultaneously are trying to develop new leaders (geeks), challenge current leaders, and retain the wisdom and skills of longtime leaders (geezers). To best accommodate geeks, Bennis says organizations should present "opportunities for all kinds of learning" that make people believe associations offer careers from which they can learn.

"What young people are looking for right now is postgraduate school — they want to continue learning," he adds. Geeks also "want people to be attentive to work-life balance issues," Bennis continues, so organizations should demonstrate family-friendliness.

Finally, geeks need to believe they are in a position that allows them to truly contribute to their organization and society at large. "These are people who want to make a difference in the world," Bennis describes.

What the geezer findings mean to associations is "a tougher question," because most organizations don't know how to use the "brains and wisdom" of very mature leaders effectively — and Bennis doesn't have an easy solution. He describes one organization that has a special building for retired people, but "the good people — the ones who still have a vital involvement with life — don't want to be there. … That's where the old farts are."

Geezers also desire the same constant learning as geeks. But conferences and seminars alone won't cut it, since the leaders interviewed say they did not learn their most important skills in formal training programs. Bennis understands: "Leadership training can be inspiring, but to send people to workshops where they will change their attitude or behavior and then send them back to an unchanged organization is a sin. … Workshops are not enough."

Geeks and geezers alike learn best in "unstructured settings," which can only be achieved on a practical level through organizational alignment and adaptability. "These are the first things I look for as an organizational consultant," he explains. "One is alignment — everyone can tell you what the mission is, and everyone's personal values are aligned with the mission. [And two] is the adaptability of the organization. … If you have alignment without adaptability, you have a classic military organization."

Four Key Competencies
Bennis and Thomas believe that crucibles surface four leadership competencies: adaptive capacity, engaging others through shared meaning, voice, and purpose.

The Four Leading Characteristics of Leaders

Adaptive capacity. "What is it that gives people the capacity to make change and want to change, to take in new data and be able to adjust accordingly?" asks Bennis. He and Thomas coined the answer: adaptive capacity. Two elements are key to this leadership competency. "One is referred to in the book as being a first-class noticer — to be a first-class observer of what's going on, not just within your organizational silo and your narrow domain but what's going on in the world," describes Bennis.

Exemplary leaders recognize that "habit is a great deadener," he continues. "To break out of the day-to-dayness of things is very difficult. … It's not just observing aimlessly. It isn't just reading 60 newspapers a day. It's observing and realizing that if the observations are accurate, not to act on them would be almost a sin."

The observation aspect includes the ability to build an effective team, because "none of us is as smart as all of us," Bennis emphasizes. "Expecting one person at the top to be able to observe, digest, analyze, and then be able to deploy that knowledge successfully is ridiculous. It obviously takes a team of people that collegially can look at the world, observe the world together, and what they don't know, they can explain to each other."

The second major part of adaptive capacity is hardiness, which relates to "the expectation of future success." "In my decades of trying to understand and observing leaders, there's one thing that stands out about exemplary leaders: They have unwarranted optimism," Bennis says. "You can't avoid some bad news, but one job of a leader is to get people to invest in the future. … basically, we're providers of hope."

Bennis' and Thomas' data indicates that adaptive capacity is the key asset that separates the doers from the wannabes. Sixty percent of the success of the leaders studied is attributable to this one characteristic.

Engaging others for shared gain. Exemplary leaders are capable of suspending their followers and stakeholders "in webs of significance," Bennis says. "Whether it's a political leader or a CEO of a not-for-profit, a leader has to create and develop a sense of significance, of doing something that is way beyond his or her own self-interest."

What to Look For in Potential Leaders

Purpose. The duo also found that for all interviewees, leadership "just seemed to be a part of how they saw themselves. It was who they were."

That purpose includes vision. "Leaders have to provide some overall sense of direction," emphasizes Bennis, noting that in a recent Gallup poll of 84,000 people, the key factor that most respondents wanted from their employer is a clear sense of purpose.

Distinctive voice. Distinctive voice is the combination of integrity and authenticity, which differ. Hitler was very authentic as a human being but had no "moral compass," Bennis says. When integrity and authenticity are successfully coupled in a leader, that person "tends to be comfortable in their own skin. They're present, and they're very real. They tend to have a voice that is recognizable — that sense of character, the person who isn't being hidden. That sense of voice of who you are is what people want from their leaders."

With these new insights into how leaders young and old evolve and learn, Bennis hopes that organizations will reexamine their leadership development and retention efforts, perhaps linking traditional training with new opportunities that take into account this new leadership model, the power of crucibles, and the impact of era.

Author Link: Kristin Merriman-Clarke, CAE, is an associate and Web editor for Executive Update. She can be reached at 202-326-9548 or

Warren Bennis is represented by the Washington Speakers Bureau.

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