I got an interesting lesson in leadership this summer during a seminar I attended at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. About 350 people from across the country gathered in the church-like Gaston Hall of the Healy Building at the center of the Georgetown campus in mid-June to listen to David Gergen, an advisor to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.
“Leadership is about mobilizing people in the pursuit of joint goals,” he said, commenting that too many organizations are over-managed and under-led. “That means you are going to have to have a relationship with those people… There’s the leader, the followers and the goal. You’ve got to get those three in alignment.”
Gergen, an editor at large for U.S. News & World Report and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, spoke extemporaneously about the three qualities he said leaders need: ambition, capacity and character.
“All the presidents and great leaders I know share one attribute: they are all ambitious,” Gergen said. “Ambition is important in a leader; you have got to want to leave your mark, leave your imprint. The question, of course, is ambition for what?” The great leaders, he said, start out ambitious for themselves, but as they obtain important positions, they shift that ambition to others. Their ambition is no longer for their own greatness, but for the greatness of those they are leading, Gergen said.
Great leaders have a large capacity for knowledge, Gergen continued. Leaders are genuinely curious and want to learn. Nixon learned by traveling; Clinton was a voracious reader. Drawing on examples from history, Gergen said Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt also were big readers. Gergen quoted Harry Truman, who said: “Not every reader is a leader, but ever leader is a reader.”
Although Presidents Nixon and Clinton were ambitious and had great capacity, they suffered for lack of character. Nixon’s dark side prevented him from achieving the greatness he was capable of; Clinton’s character flaws held him back as well.
“The one president who surprised everyone, including me, with his ability as a leader, who brought these three abilities together in a nice balance was Ronald Reagan,” Gergen said. “He was the best leader we’ve had since Roosevelt… You can disagree with his policies, but his capacity to mobilize others in pursuit of shared goals, you have to say Reagan was a very good leader.
“Reagan was ambitious but not overly ambitious… He was not as bright as Nixon or Clinton, but he was good enough,” Gergen explained. “Reagan was a well-anchored person, who was comfortable with himself. He had his gyroscope. He had a sense of direction about his life, a sense of purpose. He had the character that made him a really great leader.
“To be a leader, you have to know who you are. You have to be ambitious and you have to master your emotional side, master the difficult things. You can’t be a leader of others until you can lead yourself.”
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
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