David Gergen is the editor-at-large at U.S. News & World Report and political analyst for CNN and PBS. He has served as a White House adviser to four presidents; Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton. He is also a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Leadership. An active participant in American national life for 30 years, Gergen has a lifetime of experience in observing and participating in high-capacity leadership.
The following is some of his comments during his interview with Bil Hybels during the 2009 Leadership Summit.
What were the unique strengths and weaknesses of each of the presidents with whom you served?
Nixon: he was the best strategist. Some one who can look further back can look further ahead. But he was also held everyone at the periphery at first; but once he trusted you he
would bring you in closer and you discovered that there is a dark side.
He had his demons; I don’t know where they came from. There were
demons that he could not control that ultimately brought him down.
Ford: he was the most decent man. You did not have to keep your back to the wall with him. I find that people how are decent should be prized; they are so rare. But he was sometimes naive and didn’t fully understand that politics is a rough sport.
Clinton: he had a very quick mind; extremely bright guy. But the quality I most admired about him was his resilience. While he would not want to be in the same sentence as Nixon; he
also had cracks in his character. He made mistakes and he should have come
clean immediately and ask forgiveness.
Reagan: he was the best leader in the White House. He was a principled man who had a contagious enthusiasm. There is something that you are all up to. He was also a gifted communicator. But his detachment was a weakness; you need to keep your hands on the wheel. There were times when he didn’t have a strong team and it hurt him.
Other comments by Gergen:
- If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, do it with others.
- Don’t underestimate symbolism in leadership
- How to give an effective speech:
- First, open people up to yourself
- Logic of your message – work their mind
- End is really important to come back to the emotion. There needs to be a call for action. You have a a choice: “Come, let us think” vs. “Come, let us march”
- The personal habits of leaders do matter. The best leaders are those who have regular habits. Self-discipline. Churchill would take a nap in the middle of the day and claimed that he had two days rather than one. Being physically fit is important. If you allow your bodies to go flabby, you will allow your mind to grow flabby. Building time in your day to reflect is important. Building time in your day to be with the people you love and the people that love you. Research tells us that people who are in loving relationships in the 60’s tend to live a lot longer and tend to be happy about life.
- Young people today care about social change and are on a spiritual journey. They are on a search for their spiritual well-being. Their spiritual foundation is important to them; it helps them find their moral compass (“true north”). One of the great dangers of leadership is that your ego gets so large that you think the rules don’t apply to you. Faith, family and friends are great anchors that keep you grounded. Gandhi – “if you want to change the world; be the change you want to see.”