At SpeechTEK 2011, Keynoter David Gergen Calls for Leadership

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NEW YORK (SpeechTEK 2011) — With a U.S. credit score downgrade and a plummeting stock market as a backdrop, senior CNN political analyst David Gergen called for solid leadership 

during these “turbulent times.” The former adviser to four U.S. presidents kicked off SpeechTEK 2011 in August with a keynote address that shed light on the global economic crisis and drew parallels to the business world.

“One of the advantages of being older is that you see a lot,” said Gergen, who advised Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton and also serves as a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School and the director of its Center for Public Leadership. “One of the patterns you see is it’s important to keep basics in mind in the turbulent times we are living in now.”

Specifically, he said, “Don’t get too far from the fundamental truths and fundamental virtues, and you will find that you will get through life a lot more easily.”

During his keynote, Gergen contrasted Nixon with English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who showed great leadership during World War II. “I think what you find with both Churchill and Nixon is that they were very much in uncharted water,” he explained. “The difference between the success that one had and the failure that the other had tells us a lot about leadership altogether and what one must do even in the current day.”

Leadership and politics in the corporate and political worlds are “very similar,” he said. Mobilizing others to work toward a shared goal is a top priority for leaders in both fields and defines their successes. “When you mobilize, you have to get people to get out and act and do something to buy a product, to sign a petition, to vote, to do something,” he said. “How you mobilize is very important, and it’s in the pursuit of shared goals, not your goals. The best leaders are those who draw others out, understand them, and mobilize to get them to do things.”

Looking back through history, Gergen continued, the best leaders “spend time listening. It is not a one-way process. It is no longer, ‘Here is what you must do.’ It is a conversation in which you listen to them and you begin to tease out the shared goals. You then convince them if these are what your dreams are, here is how we go about it.”

In addition, for leaders to effectively mobilize and persuade, earning—and keeping—trust is indispensable. “Whether people trust you or not is whether they are going to in fact be persuaded by you,” he said. “One of the central differences between Churchill and Nixon was people didn’t trust Nixon, and for a reason. He didn’t trust them.”

Leaders also must “stay closely connected in their various roles to the people they are leading.” Gergen used his experience serving under Reagan to illustrate this principle. “Reagan wasn’t great because he was in America; Reagan was great because America was in him,” he said. “That makes a big difference.”

Referring to today’s rocky economy, Gergen said that, historically, the United States has responded well when there are “wolves at the door,” and not nearly as well when “there are termites in the basement.” He suggested the former scenario is at hand.

Today’s corporate leaders can learn by studying the performance of Churchill during a crisis. “He inspired trust, he inspired faith,” Gergen said. “People knew he was telling it to them straight. He shared in the misery of what people were going through. He was not above it all. Churchill always believed courage was the number one virtue for a leader; without that, nothing else matters.”

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