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David Gergen professor of public service and founding director of the Center for Public Leadership

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‘We’re on a Dangerous Path,’ Says Advisor to Presidents From Nixon to Clinton

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“The next few years are going to be extremely rough. I’m not sure the country will be governable, or at least governable in any recognizable sense,” David Gergen, White House advisor to four U.S. presidents of both parties and CNN senior political analyst for more than 20 years, tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.

“The country needs to change direction. We’re on a dangerous path. Democracy is threatened,” argues the bestselling author, whose new book is “Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders are Made.”

Advisor to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Gergen sees the younger generations as America’s saviors, provided they develop into great leaders.

In our interview, he describes what he calls “the seven deadly sins of leadership,” among them greed and distrust.

He also names the two contemporary presidents who have challenged White House advisors the most. One is Richard Nixon, for whom he worked. The other is Donald Trump, and while he didn’t work for him, Gergen declares that the Trump White House was in “a constant state of crisis after crisis after crisis.”

Working in the Reagan White House was certainly no picnic either, he reveals. “You had to keep your back to the wall. You never knew who would come after you.”

And you needed to be aware of the power of Nancy. The first lady “had a long knife, and she would use it when she needed to,” Gergen says.

The former editor of U.S. News & World Report, Gergen, 80, is the founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he teaches. ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Gergen, speaking by phone from New York City.

Though he paints a grim picture of the current American landscape, he stresses that “help is on the way” — those younger generations of great leaders-to-be.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: What contemporary U.S. presidential advisors have been challenged the most?

DAVID GERGEN: The most obvious are the ones who worked for [Richard] Nixon — I was an advisor to him — and [Donald] Trump. Especially Trump. There was a constant state of crisis after crisis after crisis.

You were an advisor to Ronald Reagan, too. In the Reagan White House, “knives flashed in the night,” you write in your book. What was that about?

They did. You had to keep your back to the wall. You never knew who would come after you. You’d wake up in the morning, and there would be blood on the floor.

Not a pleasant environment. But you liked working there?

I was young. And I was, “Hey, bring it on.” As you get older, you get a little more careful.

Tell me about what went on in the Richard Nixon White House when you were there.

When I came in as an advisor, I was in a very junior position, but I could see Nixon at work and hear him talk. At first, it seemed, wow, this guy is really bright.

If being the chief architect of splitting apart the Chinese from the Soviets and putting us on the road to ending the Cold War would have been all there was to Nixon, he would have been one of our better presidents.

But then came Watergate …

Tragically, he was a deeply flawed person. He had demons inside him that he hadn’t learned to control. He was very paranoid.

He believed that politics was the law of the jungle; you either eat or you’re eaten. And he would rather eat. That got him into a whale of a lot of trouble and scandal.

In your book, you provide “20 Key Takeaways.” To start with: “The country needs to change direction.”

We’re on a dangerous path. Democracy is threatened. We’ve gone through a rough patch for the last several years in which we’ve been hit by a cascade of crises going back to 2008 and 2009, when we had a very sharp recession that nearly fell into a depression.

Since then, we’ve been unable to deal with climate [change]. Our national debt has been going up significantly. The pandemic hit. We now have inflation hitting us again. After it was under control for 30 or 40 years, it’s coming back with a vengeance.

America’s place in the world has been challenged. We have all these [mass] shootings taking place.

We’re going in reverse on so many fronts, and we haven’t found the leadership that can put us right, mend the fences and reintegrate and reunify our country.

Isn’t President Biden trying to do that?

Joe Biden came in determined to reunify the country, and now he’s extremely frustrated. But the same thing happened to Barack [Obama] and George W. [Bush]. This thing has been going on for a while. It’s just getting worse.

The next few years are going to be extremely rough. I’m not sure the country will be governable, or at least governable in any recognizable sense.

That’s quite a pessimistic outlook, isn’t it?

I’m a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. Help is on the way: The younger generations are more promising. If we guide them along, open doors for them and prepare them for leadership, we’ll get through this.

On the other hand, if we just continue to decline and stay paralyzed, all bets are off. There isn’t a guarantee that our Republic will last.

Your book focuses on leadership. And you explore “The 7 Deadly Sins of Leadership,” with an offsetting virtue for each. First, let’s talk about Hubris vs. Humility.

Hubris is the most common affliction that you find in business life. When someone breaks through and gets to an important position, people want to listen to them. They have a high profile. But they’re trying to push really hard, and people think they’re arrogant.

You say that the answer to hubris is humility. Please explain.

That’s right, and it’s very hard to find humility these days. But humility cures a lot of problems. In leadership, the number-one danger is that success will go to your head, that you’ll begin to believe your very success means that you’re above mere mortals and that the rules don’t apply to you.

The second sin is Narcissism vs. Empathy. Please talk about that.

Narcissism is a close cousin of arrogance. Don Regan is a good example of this. Before he got to the Reagan White House, he ran Merrill Lynch. In the Nixon administration, first he was treasurer, but then he and Jim Baker, chief of staff, swapped jobs.

Everyone thought that Don, who had been a big executive, knew how to run the organization. To tell the truth, he was so narcissistic that every photo taken in the Oval Office included not only the president but Don Regan.

Nancy [Reagan] was [quoted as saying], “This guy thinks he’s running the country [instead of] my husband.” And she ran Regan off. Without a lot of people knowing what she was doing, she skillfully confided to the president: “You ought to get rid of that guy.” And off he went.

Nancy wielded a lot of power, did she not?

You didn’t want to cross Nancy. She had a long knife, and she would use it when she needed to. But she did it behind the scenes. It wasn’t public for the most part. But word got out.

The third of the sins is Greed vs. Modesty.

Greed usually goes more toward money, but it can go toward power also. Mostly we find it in someone who doesn’t face the question: How much is enough? How much do you really need?

Greed seems to be rearing its head increasingly among the powerful these days. Why is that?

Because there’s a tendency for powerful people to believe they’re powerful because they’re better than others. That gives them a sense of being special. Once you get into the category of thinking you’re special, you think you’re indispensable.

As the old saying goes, the graveyard is full of indispensable men.

The fourth sin you write of is Obstinacy vs. Resolution. People have to know they can depend on your word. Critical, right?

Yes. One of the worst mistakes [President Barack] Obama made was when he [changed course over Syria’s use of chemical weapons].

People thought he was weak, not resolute. You need resolution. Problems start when facts change on the ground and you need to change your policy to a new context, or you refuse to change anything at all. That’s obstinacy, and it gets you into a lot of trouble.

Fifth is Imprudence vs. Wise Judgement. You say that good judgment is indispensable to good leadership. Please elaborate.

You must learn it. You make your mistakes and learn from them. The best thing you can do is make your mistakes early.

Jack Welch famously went to work for GE when he was very young. One day, the building he was working in blew up. He thought he was going to be fired; but [headquarters] said, “We’re going to promote you because you’ve learned something here. You made mistakes early. They didn’t hurt our firm very much, and you’re stronger for it.”

Now, the sixth sin: Basic Dishonesty vs. Straight Shooting.

This is pretty straightforward! The Washington Post says Trump told 30,573 lies and deceptions in four years as president. It’s unbelievable.

One of the problems we have in politics, government and public life today is the fact that the public no longer trusts the leaders and institutions that they run.

There’s a widespread sense that the system is fixed — and that because it’s fixed, you can get away with what you can.

The seventh sin is Distrust vs. Openness. That John F. Kennedy took responsibility for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion is an example of the latter, you write.

The Bay of Pigs was a mess. But Kennedy gave a talk, and when he said, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” he was taking responsibility for the defeat.

“I was the Commander in Chief. So blame me,” he was saying.

It was a very wise decision to say that because the people trusted him more. His popularity in the Gallup poll went up by 10 points because he accepted responsibility for policy that went terribly wrong. It was very brave of him.

“Those who aspire to lead must first learn to lead themselves,” you write. Please elaborate.

That’s very important. Leadership is a tough exercise to do well. It’s easy to have a position that says, “I’m powerful, I’m the CEO.” It’s not hard to get that title, but it’s hard to get things done.

Another leadership point you stress is “Focus on your strengths: You must be the author of your life.” What does that entail?

You need to be self-aware, to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. It’s true that you need to spend time on taking care of any weaknesses, but you should spend more time on making your strengths better.

You don’t want to go from weak to mediocre. That doesn’t bring you much progress.

You say that part of leadership is learning to manage your boss. How can you do that?

If you have a certain point of view or know something they may not know, you want to speak truth to power — if you’re gutsy enough to do that. But you’ve got to know how to approach the leader you’re trying to persuade.

You don’t want to be a lonely voice in the darkness. You have to figure out how to put a coalition together inside the organization who can help persuade the boss to change direction, do something different.

And you could potentially lose your job, right?

Exactly. We speak about delivering truth to power, but it’s also very imprint to bring conscience to power — what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s not just, how do we make a lot more money?

What’s the rest, then?

The younger generations don’t want to work for a company unless it’s doing good things in the world. They’re more socially conscious, and that means they’re going to work for CEOs from an earlier generation who are less socially conscious — and that produces the rub.

You were also a presidential advisor in the Carter, Clinton and Ford administrations. These presidents were “faulted for being timid,” you write. 

Ford was a case unto himself; he didn’t expect to be president. [He was appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned; then he was appointed president after Nixon resigned].

Ford came in with a lot of humility. In retrospect, I thought he did a very good job. When he pardoned Nixon, people were shocked. I think it cost him the next election. But the Kennedy Library gave its annual prize for courage in leadership to Jerry Ford, a Republican, for his leadership in pardoning Nixon! They said it was a gutsy thing to do and the right thing.