Jan 17, 2023 6 min read

Warren Bennis on Self Invention and Authenticity in Leadership

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

— Leo Tolstoy

Leaders are often mentioned in the context of change in organizations. What often gets forgotten is the evolution of leaders themselves.

A common impediment to peak performance in executives is a lack of internal alignment. Leadership is a contact sport and it's difficult to hide leaks in the system. While it can be contained for short periods, over time it becomes a drag on performance and ultimately leads to failure.

But often this misalignment is not obvious. We chase goals throughout our lives, not realizing it was someone else's idea until it's too late. The typical challenges start appearing typically in mid career when the pull of money starts losing its power and we start thinking as to what else is out there.

This is just one example of different types of inflection points, both big and small. How we respond to them shapes our character and leadership. Charisma and presence are not simply traits and behaviors that you tack on, but rather intrinsic properties that emerge out of the whole of your experience.

Without that internal work, it's hard to project and sustain confidence that's authentic.

Performing at the highest levels requires ample amounts of self-efficacy and an internal locus of control. It's a process of constant observation and reinvention, or what leadership guru Warren Bennis calls self-invention.

In his classic On Becoming a Leader, Bennis emphasized how critical self-knowledge and self-invention are to effective leadership. He differentiates between being "invented by circumstances" and "inventing yourself". Are we creating our own circumstances, or are we at the mercy of them?

Bennis put it this way:

Once-born vs twice-born leaders

Harvard professor emeritus Abraham Zaleznik posits that there are two kinds of leaders: once-borns and twice-borns. The once-born’s transition from home and family to independence is relatively easy. Twice-borns generally suffer as they grow up, feel different, even isolated, and so develop an elaborate inner life. As they grow older, they become truly independent, relying wholly on their own beliefs and ideas. Leaders who are twice born are inner-directed, self-assured, and, as a result, truly charismatic, according to Zaleznik.

Once-borns, then, have been invented by their circumstances, as in the case of Johnson and Nixon, while twice-borns have invented themselves, as in the case of Roosevelt and Truman.

Internal alignment matters

A couple of studies underscore the benefits, even the necessity, of self-invention. First, middle-aged men tend to change careers after having heart attacks. Faced with their own mortality, these men realize that what they’ve been doing, what they’ve invested their lives in, is not an accurate reflection of their real needs and desires.
Another study indicates that what determines the level of satisfaction...is the degree to which they acted upon their youthful dreams. It’s not so much whether they were successful in achieving their dreams as the honest pursuit of them that counts. The spiritual dimension in creative effort comes from that honest pursuit.

Self-invention and native energies

I cannot stress too much the need for self-invention. To be authentic is literally to be your own author (the words derive from the same Greek root), to discover your own native energies and desires, and then to find your own way of acting on them. When you’ve done that, you are not existing simply in order to live up to an image posited by the culture or by some other authority or by a family tradition.
When you write your own life, then no matter what happens, you have played the game that was natural for you to play. If, as someone said, “it is the supervisor’s role in a modern industrial society to limit the potential of the people who work for him,” then it is your task to do whatever you must to break out of such limits and live up to your potential, to keep the covenant with your youthful dreams.
Norman Lear would add to this that the goal isn’t worth arriving at unless you enjoy the journey. “You have to look at success incrementally,” he said. “It takes too long to get to any major success."

. . . If one can look at life as being successful on a moment-by-moment basis, one might find that most of it is successful. ...When we wait for the big bow, it’s a lousy bargain. They don’t come but once in too long a time.”... Applauding yourself for the small successes, and taking the small bow, are good ways of learning to experience life each moment that you live it. And that’s part of inventing yourself, of creating your own destiny.

... To become a leader, then, you must become yourself, become the maker of your own life.

The alignment of what Bennis calls native energies and desires to the demands of our role is essential to performing at the highest levels. Even a little misalignment adds up over time. Integrity, in terms of alignment between what's required and our own values and goals, is a necessary part of the game and has a direct link to performance.

Self-knowledge is critical for self-invention

Self-knowledge, self-invention are lifetime processes. Those people who struggled to know themselves and become themselves as children or teenagers continue today to explore their own depths, reflect on their experiences, and test themselves. Others—like Roosevelt and Truman—undertake their own remaking in midlife.

Sometimes we simply don’t like who we are or what we’re doing, and so we seek change. Sometimes events, as in Truman’s case, require more of us than we think we have. But all of us can find tangible and intangible rewards in self-knowledge and self-control, because if you go on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll go on getting what you’ve always got—which may be less than you want or deserve.

Four lessons of self-knowledge

All of the leaders I talked with agreed that no one can teach you how to become yourself, to take charge, to express yourself, except you. But there are some things that others have done that are useful to think about in the process. I’ve organized them as the four lessons of self-knowledge. They are:

One: You are your own best teacher.
Two: Accept responsibility. Blame no one.
Three: You can learn anything you want to learn.
Four: True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience.

Being self-directed vs learning from others

Leaders are self-directed, but learning and understanding are the keys to self-direction, and it is in our relationships with others that we learn about ourselves. How, then, do we resolve the paradox?

This way: leaders learn from others, but they are not made by others. This is the distinguishing mark of leaders. The paradox becomes a dialectic. The self and the other synthesize through self-invention.

What that means is that here and now, true learning must often be preceded by unlearning, because we are taught by our parents and teachers and friends how to go along, to measure up to their standards, rather than allowed to be ourselves.
Like everyone else, leaders are products of this great stew of chemistry and circumstance. What distinguishes the leader from everyone else is that he or she takes all of that and creates a new, unique self.
Until you make your life your own, you’re walking around in borrowed clothes. Leaders, whatever their field, are made up as much of their experiences as their skills, like everyone else. Unlike everyone else, they use their experience rather than being used by it.
By its very nature, teaching homogenizes, both its subjects and its objects. Learning, on the other hand, liberates. The more we know about ourselves and our world, the freer we are to achieve everything we are capable of achieving.
  • Many of us are pushed by the events of our past rather than being pulled by the force of a different future — there is a fundamental difference in stance between the two orientations. One tends to be dominant over the other at different phases in life. Our best performances and maximum engagement are usually spurred by the pull of a compelling future.
  • We often think of identity as static and our actions following from it. But the opposite is equally true — actions and choices mould our identity and we can be proactive about them. Self-knowledge and self-invention that Bennis mentions, relies on identity being malleable and the determination to proactively shape it through actions and choices.
  • An unconventional way of checking authenticity is examining your relationship with time. How you perceive time, and your experience of it, holds important clues to authenticity or its lack thereof, which in turn impacts performance.


  1. On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis.
  2. Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership by Warren Bennis.

Video capturing key ideas from On Becoming a Leader

Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
Table of Contents
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Leading Sapiens.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.