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Dan Rather on Leadership and ‘Most Important Election in a Generation’

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Speaking to more than 1,000 Commonwealth Financial Network advisors on the Friday before the U.S. presidential election, former CBS news anchor Dan Rather encouraged his listeners to emulate the substance and style of great leaders: “most effective leaders,” he said, “are good listeners.”

In a sometimes emotional speech—marked by a moment of silence at the beginning of his remarks to remember American service men and women around the globe—Rather said the “best leaders are strong communicators,” and that his listeners might be surprised to know how many of the national and world leaders he knew and met had read Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” At the independent broker-dealer’s national conference in Austin on Nov. 4, Rather echoed the conference’s theme by saying the job of a leader is to “overcome obstacles and turn them into opportunities.”

While he didn’t speak directly of the presidential election in his public comments, in a brief interview afterward he did address the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump campaign. “It’s too easy to say this is the election of a lifetime,” Rather said backstage after his speech. However, he said it would be accurate to call it “the election of a generation.” As to what worries him about the two contenders’ policies, he said the big issue for him is trade. “Will we retrench?” he asked, agreeing in response to a question that protectionism didn’t work out so well for the country or the world in the 1930s, when the U.S. raised tariffs on imported goods under the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930.

According to the U.S. State Dept., “U.S. imports from Europe declined from a 1929 high of $1,334 million to just $390 million in 1932, while U.S. exports to Europe fell from $2,341 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932. Overall, world trade declined by some 66% between 1929 and 1934.” 

In his speech, Rather returned to his theme of traits shared by great leaders, emphasizing the ability to think critically and analytically, but also that they “generally know how to write well, in both short and long forms.” One way to become a better writer, he suggested, was to read Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style.”

He then shared some of his favorite takes on the shared virtues of world leaders past and present. He got to know well Dr. Martin Luther King, he said, “who changed me as a person,” and who, when everything was “going to hell in a hat,” became “quiet at the center.” It was Andrew Jackson who said “one person with courage can be a majority,” while C.S. Lewis pointed out that courage is not simply one of the virtues but the most important one, because “the form of every virtue at its starting point.”

One leader who showed courage was Nelson Mandela. Rather said he was at Mandela’s house when he arrived there after spending decades in prison, yet he never showed bitterness, but instead was “made of oak and iron, like Mother Theresa.” Leaders like Mandela share a sense of optimism, he said, like the Dalai Lama, who in addition to being a religious and political leader is an intellectually curious person as well.

He concluded by urging the Commonwealth audience that in their profession—“I know and appreciate what you do”—they “leaven competitiveness with forgiveness,” as shown by Mandela.


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