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Speed Dial: Warren Bennis

You wrote On Becoming a Leader two decades ago. What's changed?

It's a brutal time for anyone in leadership. Never have you had to communicate with so many constituencies. It's hard to even sort out what all the variables are. I don't think I've seen anything like it.

Where do you start?

Your first goal is to help your constituents—whether they're shareholders or customers or otherwise—understand reality. You have to be able to articulate what steps your team is taking to confront this reality, and you've got to be straight about it. Too many people fall prey to the mud factor with cloudy, hard-to-interpret statements.

The art of the sound bite!

Sound bites are important. A leader has to talk to people's hearts. Sound bites give specificity, but they have to be relevant and meaningful and resonant. Don't talk about five-year plans. Be specific and help people deal with complexity without getting into the five-year-old mindset.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to be a CEO?

The first thing I would say is forget about balance of work and family. It's more than a full-time job. Abandon your ego. You can't solve everything yourself, so you've got to learn to build and work with a top team. If you don't have that, forget it. And you have to connect with as diverse a group as possible. You have to be realistic as hell about the sacrifices to become a leader. But if you pull it off, you can make life better for so many people. What could be sweeter?

Brady is a senior editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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