US Presidential Adviser David Gergen on Leadership

by seangljacobs

This is an ageing but decent podcast from back in 2000 (from the Free Library of Philadelphia) where David Gergen – adviser to four United States Presidents – speaks about great leaders.

Gergen makes two broad points.  First, what appears to distinguish history’s great leaders and Presidents is a keen understanding of history, which enhances judgment and the capacity to make wise decisions.  Winston Churchill, he memorably notes, could see “further forward” because he could look “further back.”

Former US President Richard Nixon will always be remembered by scandal but, according to Gergen, he was a leader who “travelled relentlessly, he learned about other cultures, he learned about their languages, their practices, and what their interests were.”

Nixon also “read relentlessly,” which is Gergen’s second point.  The capacity to keep growing and learning is, in Gergen’s view, a hallmark of decent Presidents.  Harry Truman – a President mocked for his lack of formal education (he did not go to College) – “made smart decisions because of his relentless self-education.”  Truman is a President whose foreign policy decisions made slim sense at the time but, with half a century of hindsight, have found vindication.

It is interesting to hear Gergen speak of leadership today and the premium he places on future leaders having to be across a “much broader, wider bandwidth.”  In the 2011 book Passion and Purpose, Gergen underlines:

Today, you must know not only international politics but also international economics, health care delivery, issues related to education, and so on… there’s much more need for knowledge across fields (in John Coleman, Daniel Gulati, W. O. Segovia, Passion and Purpose, Harvard Business Press Books, 48).

A grasp of history and self-learning, however, are enduring skills in navigating the breadth of complexity.