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Warren Bennis – An Inspiration to Many

Who in your life made you want to be a better person?

“Warren, you liked me! You really liked me!” – with appreciation to Sally Field

My last mentor, Warren Bennis, died on July 31, 2014.  As a psychiatrist I have known about and observed what is referred to as anniversary reactions in friends and patients, but I have never experienced one of my own.  That is until July 31, 2015.

My particular reaction to the death of Warren one year later was a mixture of equal parts heartache and a smile in my heart for the love I felt towards him and believe he returned.

Warren was referred to as a “deep listener” by one of his other mentees, David Gergen and another mentee, Howard Schultz, always appreciated that about him. He always had a way of making you feel interesting even though it was clear that he was often the more interesting person. At least that was certainly true of our relationship.

He also had a way with words that I refer to as Warrenisms. One of my favorite Warrenisms is: “Boredom occurs when I fail to make the other person interesting.”

And one of my favorite Warren stories was the time I was having breakfast with him and as always he pressed for me to talk and for him to listen. 

I told him, “Warren you are the one that is much more worth listening to, so you’re going to talk.” He looked at me a little miffed and then began to open up about things he felt deeply and personally passionate about.  He became so enthused that he inadvertently spit into my food. 

When that happened, he saw it and he saw that I saw it and he said, “Mark, I think I just sprayed your food.”  I told him it was okay and not a problem.

When I returned to my office I sent him an email saying, “Warren, when people find out that you are my mentor, they ask me what that is like.  I tell them that every time I am with you, I try to absorb you into my DNA and I think that your spraying my food today helped.”

Warren was also one of the main inspirations for my writing my book, “Just Listen,” whose great success has been quite humbling to me.

I am writing now, because there is something else I discovered since his death that I wish I had the chance to tell him about while he was still alive.  And that is the healing power of a beloved and loving mentor.

Towards the end of his life when we would meet I would find myself tearing up in his presence regularly.  It wasn’t a “boo hoo” type of crying. It was more that my eyes spontaneously started tearing up on their own.

On one occasion when I could see him noticing, I told him, “Warren I have a confession to make. I’ve been using you.” Being used was something that Warren, like many famous people, were always on the alert about and resented. 

He looked at me with an immediate negative reaction bluring out, “What?” in an offended tone.  But then knowing about our relationship and how this was completely out of character, he smiled and said, “Okay, Mark, what is it?”

I next responded that I was using him because being with him and feeling his respect for me was healing something that never occurred that was left over from my childhood and that I never thought would be healed.  It was that feeling of having that long standing hunger and wound healed that caused me to cry (truth be told, in retrospect, I think the tears also were about my sensing him getting older and his health declining).

At that point he looked at me and rubbed his chin and remarked, “Not a bad way to use me Mark.”

But here is that thing I realized since his death that I wasn’t aware of earlier.  It was not his respect or admiration that healed me. It was feeling enjoyed by him. It was that my mere presence independent of accomplishments put a smile on his face that I’m guessing might have touched his heart.

It was feeling taken in and enjoyed in that matter that in essence took the “half baked” part of my personality back into a loving oven and then finished cooking me until I was “well done” and well.

Also when you feel enjoyed for who you are vs. your accomplishments or achievements it immediately relieves you of feelings of being a burden to others. That is particularly relevant to me, because the last thing – and I mean this even to a pathological level – I would ever want to be is a burden to anyone.

The healing power of enjoyment is a special power that many mentors would do well to understand they have and something they would do well to realize is very important to their mentees and possibly more so than their guidance.

After Warren died, it was the first time I was mentorless in more than forty years and at first I was startled and wondered who I could find as my next mentor, now that the last of the six mentors I was blessed to have had died. I then thought, “What if instead of looking to find another mentor, that I internalized all of the love and belief that my mentors had given me and became the guy myself?” (It didn’t matter that I have already been mentoring close to twenty people myself).

I haven’t looked for another mentor and have in fact tried to own “being the guy” myself.

In the past few years an interesting transformation has occurred inside me and I think it represents the best of Warren and my past mentors.  I think it may also be something they looked for in people towards the end of their lives. What I’ve decided is to only let people into my life personally and professionally:

  • who care more about making the world better than about themselves
  • who have a lifelong passion of improving themselves as people
  • who have a sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously
  • who are not only comfortable being vulnerable and real, but prefer it
  • who make me want to be a better person
  • whose back I have and who have my back
  • who put a smile in my heart as I see that I put a smile on their face just for being me

Rest in peace dear Warren.  You loved me well, helped make me well and made me want to be a better man… which is still a work in progress.

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