Gergen Provides a Balanced Look at Presidential Leadership

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 3.11.25 PMOn November 20, we welcomed political commentator David Gergen to Westmont. He delivered his timely and compelling remarks as part of our Mosher Center series, Moral and Ethical Leadership in American Society. He has assessed American presidents at the crossroads of political thought and life for nearly 50 years. In preparation for his visit, we read his New York Times bestseller, Eyewitness to Power: the Essence of Leadership from Nixon to Clinton. Gergen’s talk followed the general contour of the book, highlighting the strengths and limitations of each president as he witnessed and experienced them. A former adviser to four presidents, Gergen appears on CNN and co-directs the Center for Public Leadership and professor of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.

I have always appreciated Mr. Gergen’s political commentary. Of all the personalities on the evening news shows, he seems to be the one willing and able to see both sides of an issue. He is fair-minded, sometimes to a fault. But he also discusses the ways each one of us can learn important lessons from our presidents and apply them to our own leadership responsibilities.

The concluding chapter of his book lists seven principles of effective leadership:

  1. Character is destiny and great leaders have a moral compass that can be relied on—it starts from within.
  2. Effective leaders have a central, compelling purpose.
  3. Effective leaders have a capacity to persuade.
  4. Effective leaders have an ability to work within the system.
  5. Effective leaders make a sure, quick start.
  6. Effective leaders have a cadre of strong, prudent advisors.
  7. Effective leaders have an ability to inspire others to carry on the mission after they’re gone.

In each case, he amplifies the principle by looking back at the various presidents. Nixon’s successes resulted from his remarkable ability to anticipate and set strategy. But his dark, foreboding temperament unleashed self-destructive demons that overwhelmed him and led to his downfall. Gergen views Ford graciously and believes history has treated him much better than contemporary commentators, but Gergen also documents the many mistakes and miscues Ford committed as a result of his limited executive experience. Gergen extols Reagan’s leadership and ability to set priorities and see the big picture and praises Clinton’s tremendous strengths while recoiling from his reckless and self-destructive behavior.

Throughout the lunch, Gergen punctuated his remarks with anecdotes and humor amplifying the personality of these leaders. His talk helped set the framework for the election of our next president, less than a year away. We stand at the crossroads as a country and a world. During the weeks and months ahead, we sort out our priorities as we determine which leader will set the agenda and approaches for America’s role in the world. If only our option included someone like David Gergen, capable of combining reasoned observation with judgment, integrity and goodwill.

You can read more about Gergen’s talk on our website.

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