By Susan Milligan
When it comes to public service, David Gergen has the complete resume: he’s worked for four presidents (Republican and Democratic), has been a journalist for both TV and print (including as editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report), has been active on many non-profit boards and is the founding and current director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Gergen has more than a few thoughts on leadership – what makes a great leader, and why competent (spoiler alert – younger!) leaders are more crucial now than ever.
In his new book, “Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made,” Gergen discusses how leaders are made, and the many kinds of leaders – students, presidents and activists – who can steer the nation. U.S. News & World Report interviewed Gergen about his new book and how young people can lead us out of the current crisis. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There is an enormous appetite for books on leadership, and I think it’s increasing now. I had an opportunity earlier in life, the privilege of working in the White House for four presidents (Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton). I admired each of them in his own way. But what emerged from that whole experience (was a sense) of being dispirited about where we are as a country, in terms of our political leadership.
The book is aimed at young people in particular. Why?
I moved to Cambridge, Mass, basically because I wanted to start working with the younger generations. Because I think increasingly our capacity as a nation, and our success as a nation, is going to depend upon the quality of leadership in the next generations to come.
My growing belief for some time has been, we’re in a mess. The people who got us into this mess – the Baby Boomers – are hardly the people, I think, who are going to get us out of it. Our future rests upon the quality of people who are beginning to enter the arena now. This book is a call to them to take the reins. It’s time to pass the torch. And it’s time for them to pick it up.
Is there room for the older generations to serve?
I think it leaves room for others – especially older ones, people like me. It’s important that the older generation can lend real, critical support to the younger generations in terms of preparing them for what’s coming – sharpening them up, and forming alliances.
The younger generations ought to be running the show; they ought to be running organizations. And that includes the presidency. But the older generations can bring wisdom; they can bring experience to the table. So I think there’s much to be said for multi-generational alliances.
You talk in the book about leadership being best exercised as service to others. What do you mean by that?
Successful leadership rests heavily on the notion that the person who’s doing the leading is actually putting some things at risk, and is engaged in a form of sacrifice. If you’re in the public arena, you’re subject to withering criticism from left and right. I think you’re paying a price by getting into the arena, but I think it’s a price worth paying.
So can the younger generation – advised by a more experienced, older generation – lead us out of the situation we’re in?
I happen to be a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. I think the next few years are going to be very rough – no matter who wins the White House, no matter who runs the Congress, no matter who runs public institutions or private institutions. There’s so much poison in the system now. It’s going to turn around, but it’s going to take time.
What gives me hope are the people who are already stepping forward in the younger generations, who do want to make a difference.
Why do you think young people can be impactful?
Social media – you can reach a much bigger audience much faster. Greta Thunberg (the Swedish climate change activist) for example. Malala, in Pakistan. We have the Parkland kids, who have had a significant impact on gun control.
The Black Lives Matter movement was started by young Black women in their late 20s and early 30s.
Do leadership principles such as being in service to others apply to the private sector?
I think the jury is still out on that, but I think it’s encouraging that the private sector has been reimagining capitalism, in one form or another. Some of the main pressure for climate change (solutions) have come from the corporate sector. Project OneTen is a pledge by CEOs of major corporations to create 1 million new jobs for Black and brown people. I am encouraged by that. Some people say it’s just a PR dodge, but let’s wait and see.
And that’s driven by younger people, too, right? Because companies want to attract good talent?
That’s true – a lot of people are saying, in effect, I’d love to come work for you, but show me how you’re doing good as a corporation.
You list so many different kinds of leaders in the book – FDR, Reagan, Joe Biden, civil rights activists, Washington Post owner Kay Graham. Is there a common thread?
Adversity. Adversity enters the life of almost every individual who becomes a great leader. Somewhere along the way, you’re going to stumble – a terrible tragedy in your family, or your employment situation is going to go off the rails, or your personal life, your marriage.
People experience what I call crucible moments. Some people fall apart, and never put themselves back. There’s a second group who has to work like hell, and they do put themselves back together, but after a year or two, they get back to where they were.
The third group is the one that has the resilience of the second group, but actually gets stronger as a result of the crucible experience. They have to reach deeper inside themselves. And they often come back with a more powerful framework for their lives. I worked for Reagan, and after he was shot, he said he felt spared by God. He said, I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to God.
FDR had polio, and he convinced the country he could walk – he faked it. He swiveled. The country’s view was, any man who could get off his back, could overcome polio and learn to walk again, can get this country off its back, get us up and running. That was his philosophy. And it worked.
We’re in a time now of bitter political divides, where people don’t even agree on common goals, let alone ways to get there. How do you lead people who don’t want to be led – or who want to be led in different directions?
It’s critical that you begin to develop a voice and a following of people who think you’re different – that there’s something else you’re going to bring to the table that’s going to make you more trustworthy. It can’t be just a continuation of what we’ve had for the past 4-8 years. That’s not going to happen.
Frankly, we need some younger leadership. The likelihood is that we’re going to have Trump vs. Biden. That’s not going to go over well with the younger generation. And it shouldn’t. It’s a mistake to turn the presidency – the most complex organization in the world – to someone in their 80s.
I notice you don’t mention Trump as a leader in your book. Why did he convince so many people he could lead?
I think Americans were looking for a strong man. That’s increasingly the danger you find – if democracy doesn’t work, people start looking for authoritative, authoritarian-type leaders. They thought, I don’t approve of Trump, the way he’s lived his life, but he’s tough. And he understands me.
I don’t think they quite understood just how much of a challenge it is to be Donald Trump and to try to get people to trust you. If we elect him again, that reflects on us – not him. It says something very concerning about where the country is. And that, I think, is truly concerning, if not frightening.
How concerned should we be about the future of democracy?
We should always be a little nervous. It used to be that history moved so slowly. But now it’s really sped up. We’re going at a really fast pace for leadership; you’ve got to make decisions in a split second. And I think that’s made leadership more perilous.
One of the bright sides of adversity is that you often see people you never would have seen before. I think the obvious example now is (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy. Here was a guy who was an entertainer, and he gets elected. He’s still not very effective, but then the Russians invade his country. It turns out he has something inside himself that not even Zelenskyy believes was there.
A poll by the Institute of Politics earlier this year found that young people are dispirited, thinking political involvement doesn’t make a difference. Yet they still say they will vote this fall. What do you make of that?
By and large, the younger generation does bring a lot to the table – a lot of idealism and a lot of passion. I think they’re also more cynical, and we’ve given them a reason to be. It’s a mess. We’ve been told so many lies, so often, especially by Trump, that I think it made it hard for the young generation.
But I think overall, the idealism, the passion is there. Some people are willing to put in several years of work to make these things happen. I’m encouraged by them, because I do think there are some people willing to gut it out. And they know it’s going to be rough and they know they’re not going to make a lot of money But they’re going to be doing something that satisfies their soul.
What’s the best way to encourage public service?
I am very much for national service. I believe every person 18-24 should be encouraged – not forced – to give back a year in their community, like the Civilian Conservation Corps from the FDR years. It prepared people to work across social barriers, across racial barriers, across gender barriers. You had a kind of different person who emerged from that.
Do you think those experiences, those contributions by younger generations, can change the tone – getting us moving towards common goals?
That’s my hope. That’s why I wrote the book. That’s my hope.