NEW YORK — When Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas got together to write their most recent book, they were sure they had a good idea. They would interview movers and shakers from two different age groups: those over 70 ("geezers") who had wielded influence in their fields, and those under 35 ("geeks") who had done the same. Then they'd compare the divergent styles of leadership.
"We thought we'd end up with an interesting book about the way generational forces shaped and influenced leadership styles," says Professor Thomas, who is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "We wondered what [the two groups] could learn from each other."
The resulting product is "Geeks and Geezers" (Harvard Business School Press). But instead of taking a closer look at what separated these generations, the authors found themselves examining what leaders throughout the ages have in common.
"The most interesting parts of the book have to do with transformations that happened to both groups, and that was a surprise to us," says Professor Bennis, who teaches business administration at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Bennis and Thomas conducted 43 interviews to discover how it was to have been bright, ambitious, and 25 in 1950, as contrasted to being bright, ambitious, and 25 in 2000. Their subjects ranged from New York University president John Brademas, world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, and broadcast journalist Mike Wallace in the geezer category, to Motorola executive Elizabeth Altman, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, and Amazon.com executive Jeff Wilke as the geeks.
As leaders of both age groups poured out their life stories, Bennis and Thomas began to feel that in some ways they were simply hearing again and again the tale of how, faced with adversity or even a devastating loss, an individual learned to adapt, to grow, to become stronger, rather than to submit to a sense of defeat.
They suggest underlining the following sentence in their book with a yellow highlighter: "To the extent that any single quality determines success, that quality is adaptive capacity."
The strongest predicator of success in any field of endeavor, say the authors, is the ability to be reshaped, strengthened, and improved by life's tragedies, rather than to be crushed by them. The qualities necessary to achieve that goal include a certain childlike enthusiasm and curiosity about the world and how it works, a willingness to be a lifelong learner, and an almost ego-less willingness to have ideas tested and reformed by the crucible of experience.
They point to life stories like those of geezer Mike Wallace, whose oldest son died in an accident in Greece at age 23. Mr. Wallace was devastated by the loss, but emerged from the experience filled with a new energy and a fresh determination to make his own life count, a drive that pushed him from success in a small local venue to national fame.
That life-changing crisis, they say, is remarkably similar to what 1980s high-flyer Michael Klein experienced when he lost $20 million in personal wealth in the real-estate industry. Instead of giving in to feelings of failure or humiliation, Mr. Klein viewed the loss as a wake-up call, and retooled and returned to industry to become even more successful in software.
"Some people come out of crucibles smaller, others come out enlarged," says Thomas. The ones who come out enlarged are the leaders.
The book makes note of many generational differences between the two groups, comparing the geezers' thought patterns to an "analog" or linear view of experience, and the geeks to a "digital" or dynamic view of experience.
Another major difference is that geezers tended to focus harder on their jobs and to expect that retirement would allow them time to pursue other pleasures.
Geeks, on the other hand, try much harder to integrate their professional and personal lives today, refusing to postpone all personal satisfaction.
Many geeks mentioned in interviews that they barely knew their fathers, who were consumed by their jobs. It's a loss they regretted and did not intend to pass on to their children.
To the extent that the geeks have succeeded in leading more balanced lives, Thomas says he and Bennis detected "a definite sense of progress that was really quite encouraging."
But for Bennis, the most valuable and exciting part of the book is probing why two individuals can face similar setbacks, but one will come out "martyred, defeated, and resigned," while the other emerges "with an even stronger embrace of life."
"We think we know why," he says, pointing to insights gained while working on the book. "It has to do with adaptive capacity, a capacity to engage others in shared meaning, having one's own voice, having emotional intelligence, and having some kind of inner moral compass or integrity."
These are exactly the same qualities that predict leadership in an individual.
"To make that connection was a real surprise to me," says Bennis, who hopes many readers outside the business world will pick up the book and find it inspirational. "And yet I've been studying leadership all my life."