Is Democracy Inevitable? Advice from my father, Warren Bennis

Is Democracy Inevitable? Advice from my father, Warren Bennis

 

“We underrate the strength of democracy because democracy creates a general

attitude of doubt, of skepticism, of modesty. It is only among the authoritarians

that we find the dogmatic confidence, the self-righteousness, the intolerance

and cruelty, that permit one never to doubt oneself and one’s beliefs.”

–Warren Bennis and Philip Slater, “Democracy is Inevitable” 1964

 

My father, Warren Bennis, spent much of his adult life teaching and writing about leadership. When he died in 2014 at age 89, he was heralded as the architect of the field of Leadership Studies and over his long influential career, he counseled corporate executives, military officers and American presidents.

Those of us who knew him well cannot help but imagine what he would have thought about the elevation of Donald Trump to the highest, most powerful leadership position in the world. I can see my father clearly: morning newspaper spread wide, head in his hands, fearing that his life’s work and his passionate desire to defend democracy, in both word and deed, had failed.

At least for a while.  Then, my father would think back over the years of turmoil that marked his life as a child of the Depression, a 19 year-old captain in WWII, campus riots, blacklisting, Watergate, and the many assassinations—the deaths of his heroes. All the while remembering that undergirding this unrest was a system of democracy that prevailed and moved forward.

If my father had anything, he had a long-view and he had optimism.

He believed that great leaders are made, not born. He studied the skills of leaders, advised a succession of presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, and taught us that great leadership promotes a great society. His heroes were those who were courageous, empathetic, receptive, able to communicate a vivid and engaging vision, uniting and elevating people to work towards the common good.

With the election of President Trump, I felt compelled to go back and search through my father’s writings, through his books and articles, emails and memories of our conversations, looking for his wisdom to steer us through what I am certain he would have seen as an attempt to dismantle our democracy.

What might he have written about today, after witnessing the early months of this new president, with his seeming disregard for the sanctity of our democratic structure?

My father undoubtedly would have pointed out that democracy is resilient, moving steadily towards those principles that mark a flourishing and robust society, even if the moment may appear bleak. He would have reminded us that democracy cannot be dismantled by one person or administration.  He would have reminded us that we often make the mistake of focusing our attention on the most destructive person in the room. We must instead focus on and build upon the health of an entity, whether an organization, a movement, or a government. And he would have reminded us that democracy’s greatest strength is in us, the citizens who step up to lead our leaders.

As far back as 1964, my father, along with his colleague Philip Slater, published a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Democracy is Inevitable” in which they set up what became a classic argument for the strength and longevity of democracy.  In it, they pointed out that in a newly technological age, autocratic structures, both in government and in business, would crack under the weight of constant change. “It is only when the society reaches a level of technological development in which survival is dependent on the institutionalization of perpetual change that democracy becomes necessary,” they wrote. They argued that only democratic structures have the agility needed to survive the relentless movement of the modern age.

In the 1970s, my father wrote an essay called “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?”  He looked around at the carnage that followed Watergate then quickly turned his energy towards mentoring and teaching future leaders.

Not long before he died, he acknowledged what he called “a global arrhythmia,” a chaotic swirl of powerful events testing leaders around the world. He believed the way forward is to focus on the principles that make us our best selves and make our country strong: equality, inclusion, honesty, tolerance, freedom of speech, the right to demonstrate peacefully, religious freedom, and the right to live without fear.

Great leaders engage us and unite us by tapping into our strongest, most positive values and by creating a compelling vision for which we must strive. As my father wrote, “America itself emerged out of simultaneous disobedience and vision.” As citizens it is our duty to peacefully disobey those who work to dismantle democracy and as leaders it is our duty to uphold our democratic vision for all.

Warren & Katie, Aspen 1971 Photo: Bruce Jackson

 

 

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