“Hearts Touched with Fire” (David Gergen) – How Great Leaders Are Made


Dear Partners in Thought,

As we live again in challenging geopolitical and economic times, where people cross-generations now seem lost in a compass-less world, led by too many social media that changed their minds, I thought it was useful to go back to basics and review what was and should be a key matter for us: Leadership.

“Hearts touched with fire” is the new book by David Gergen who deals with the many aspects of the making of leadership across the ages. The author, now 80, known for his gentle demeanor and crisp insights, has been a key fixture of CNN, where he has commented on political matters, notably American elections, for the last 20 years. Before this, he was a seasoned public official having served as a White House advisor to four American Presidents including Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, and is still leading the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. The “Hearts touched with fire” quote was borrowed from Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the most memorable US Supreme Court Justices, from his 1884 Memorial Day speech referring to the civil war that had shaped him into the man and indeed, while he did not stress it then, the leader he would become. While this book is focused on the American experience of leadership, it borrows from other leading examples in the world as well. It also brings us back to an America we thoroughly miss today, as David Gergen would agree. If there is one possible reservation, the book, while very rich, may also be very dense with at times too many great features to absorb, though it should be read as a novel, depicting a multi-facetted journey into history as a guide to a better future, and perhaps not just as a mere leadership guide.

Gergen makes some useful preliminaries about the “three pillars” of leadership, notably leaders, followers and context, using interesting examples to illustrate them. As Ronald Reagan defined it “a great leader is one that gets people to do the greatest things.” As such, for leaders to achieve their goals, they need followers. While the American revolution was a success and led to greater things, the French revolution died early simply as the French were not ready for it at the time as they had been living under monarchic rule for too long and did not make an effective revolutionary transition (even if some would dare to say that Napoleon brought many advancements to French society, and not only on the battlefield). Context is also key regardless of the leader: In 1939 Winston Churchill was a washed-up politician whom the war two years later transformed into the essential leader—not only for Britain but for Western democracy. Gergen offers a fourth natural pillar of leadership with “goals,” quoting the very able Reagan closest adviser, James A. Baker III, who had defined a hierarchy of goals for his President to ensure that the main ones were reached.

Gergen selects three charismatic leadership figures coming from very different walks of life — with different upbringings, politics, backgrounds and goals — indeed as leading examples at the start of his book: John Lewis, the impoverished young leader of the Civil Rights movement, Selma Bridge hero of the 1960s and Democratic leader in Congress for 33 years; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the societal record-breaking individual with a deeply struggling childhood, who then became the Supreme Court Justice known for always fighting for women’s rights; and John McCain, the son of a top naval Admiral, rebellious character, who became a military hero in Vietnam and could have been American president in 2008. He finds common features in their intersecting journeys as: i) each felt called to the public arena; ii) each began their leadership journey early; iii) each had to summon inner courage; iv) each stumbled but came back stronger; v) each began sorting out and embracing core values early on and ; vi) each found a true north; and vii) each was an idealist to their core.

David Gergen then takes us into his own journey when he interns for a North Carolinian politician in civil rights times, trying to bridge the white and African American communities in the South. One of his memorable experiences will be to go to a Ku Klux Klan meeting with two friends and barely escape, at a time when other young people following the same track would be caught, tortured and die. His early involvement in these society-changing events will teach him that he wanted to act in the public arena. In his own words, he did not know what he wanted to be but he knew where he wanted to be. Borrowing from Peter Drucker’s 1999 essay on “Managing oneself,” he stresses self-awareness as a key element of leadership creation. The main facets of self-awareness according to Drucker are i) knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses; ii) knowing how to learn by reading or listening; iii) knowing one’s place on the introvert/extrovert scale; iv) knowing how to respond to stress; and v) defining if one is a good number one or a better number two. We learn about Jefferson, Lincoln and notably Theodore Roosevelt having been avid book readers in order to shape their thinking — TR read one book a day — while Reagan (as I remember too) would not deal with briefing notes beyond one page — all while all of them were great leaders in their own times. We learn great stories about Michael Jordan who had not been selected in his high school basketball team, Winston Churchill’s dedication in his speech rehearsals or Bill Bradley, the basketball star who became US Senator. We learn about General Marshall who had decided that General Patton was at his best commanding an army but not the Army. Then, beyond self-awareness, comes self-mastery, via focusing on one’s strengths, improving constantly one’s performance, eventually leading to game-changing events like the miraculous landing of his plane on the Hudson by captain “Sully” Sullenberger, or the instant shooting by three Navy Seals of three Somali pirates as they were about to execute Captain Richard Phillips (incidentally two stories Hollywood made into movies with Tom Hanks).

David Gergen, applying a chronological approach to this main theme, focuses on the “gathering years,” when young leaders-to-be launch their careers. He has again a structured way to stress what matters at that stage: i) take time-outs; ii) choose jobs that align your passion and values; iii) perform every task — no matter how small — with excellence; iv) look for stretch jobs; v) understand your value to an organization; vi) spot those with high promises and join forces; vii) accept that you will make big mistakes early on; and viii) keep a parachute in the closet. He then goes on with the crucial necessity of finding mentors, coaches and role models. We learn how diverse personalities like Eisenhower, Henry David Thoreau and Alexandra Ocasio Cortes were mentored. We also learn about the role of sponsors in the making of future leaders. We then cover the importance of pinning down core values and principles and constructing a moral compass, all with examples of people who left their mark in American history, the latter being the author’s natural focus.

In the “Surviving the Flaming Crucible” chapter, Gergen gives us more in-depth illustrations of extraordinary leadership roads taken with FDR, a once 39-year old who could not walk one morning, having been struck by polio, but would become a game-changing American President. Another example is Malala, the young Afghan girl who was shot three times in the head by the Taliban, survived, led the fight for girls’ education around the world and, at 17, became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. In “The Keys to Resilience” chapter, Gergen goes though the reasons why some crumble at times of crucibles while others come successfully to grips and grow. He stresses the importance of a sunny temperament, adaptability, hardiness and stoicism as the four qualities needed to conquer crucibles with inner resilience. Turning adversity into purpose is also a recipe that was taught to John Quincy Adams, the future President, by his mother during the darkest days of the American Revolution. In focusing on this key feature, Gergen provides the fighting examples of the stories of Harvey Milk, the champion of the gay cause and Katherine Graham, who would end up leading The Washington Post, both illustrating the necessity of moral purpose, a key leadership ingredient.

David Gergen then focuses on “Learning to Lead Up,” something we should do in our twenties and thirties, having gone through the “gathering years.” One of the funny aspects of this learning curve is to know how to “manage your boss” so you know them and play to their strengths. All while keeping one eye on today and the other on tomorrow. Speaking conscience to power, while arguing your case, and then getting on board and being emotionally supportive. One of his personal examples of having “an iron fist in a velvet glove” is again James Baker, the close adviser to President Reagan whom David Gergen actually worked with in the White House. Those who know of James Baker, still with us at 92, will remember a highly decent and professional individual focused on public service.

“Leading your Team” is a natural chapter so often addressed by leadership experts (read the game-changing “Team of Teams” by General Stanley McChrystal and also his most recent “Leaders”) driving David Gergen to tell us about the key basics of building a good team, well-defining mutually acceptable responsibilities, and building strong enabling structures and a compelling direction. The key thing would then be to turn a good team into a great one with getting the right individuals on the bus, while getting the wrong ones off it. David Gergen offers us a roll calls of great coups in team-building from different spheres of society such as Steve Jobs at Apple, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center; Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” team or the Bauhaus Movement. In doing so he helps us understand what distinguishes great teams. He finally covers the legacy of croup-centered leaderships, notably seen in the civil rights movements and its organizations.

One key tool of leadership for Gergen is the art of public persuasion. Leaders need to be heard to have an impact, and he lists a few requirements, such as finding your own voice and ensuring the basics of public speaking are well covered. Key tools should be: i) know your purpose; ii) have a clear message; iii) pay attention to the key elements of a speech; iv) have great stories to tell; and v) master the elements of eloquence. Very usefully, and showing he is aware of a changing world, Gergen goes through these pre-requisites in our digital world, stressing both its good and bad aspects, as eloquence may be used and perceived differently in our times.

As David Gergen addressed the inner and outer journeys into leadership-making, he then goes into the convergence of these two or their integration in ways that also turned into serving others. In doing so, he goes into the existential journey of Robert Kennedy after his brother was assassinated, the assent and transformational impact of Susan Berresford as the first female CEO of the Ford foundation (today the second largest foundation in America) and the national rise, through her elector registration work in Georgia, of Stacey Abrams, an obscure Democratic State House Representative back in 2010. In a personal touch, Gergen then gives us his own experience in the White House with four Presidents, stressing what he felt had been especially key, like hitting the ground running (due to the usual “first hundred days”), keeping an eye out for young talents among the staff (telling us about a young Nixon intern, John, who became a partner and then a friend of 50 years) and, first and foremost, not surprisingly, remembering common sense. On the latter, we learn that while Reagan had not read the briefing note for a G8 meeting he was hosting in colonial Williamsburg in 1985, as he had watched instead The Sound of Music, a favorite movie of his, he was still able the following day to rise above all the details and spend time with each leader on the big picture issues.

Leaders are not without failure and may also lose their way. The common failures and their antidotes are provided starting with i) hubris vs. humility, ii) narcissism vs. empathy; iii) greed vs. modesty; iv) obstinacy vs. resolution; v) imprudence vs. wise judgment; vi) basic dishonesty vs. straight shooting; and vii) distrust vs. openness. Many examples are provided, like for basic dishonesty the chronic lies of President Trump — 30, 753 cases even before the astounding findings of the January 6 House committee hearings. David Gergen also tells us about the self-derailment of Rajat Gupta, a former CEO and partner of strategy consultancy McKinsey until 2008. Gupta, closely associated with the Harvard Business School and a role model for business leadership, was charged with three counts of insider trading having benefited Raj Rajaratnam, following instant disclosure by Gupta of a USD 5bn investment Warren Buffett was making in Goldman Sachs, on which board the ex-McKinsey CEO was a member. He spent 19 months in jail. Gergen’s view, corroborated by his friends at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, was that while Gupta was dealing with his top corporate CEO clients as equals, he could not stand in retirement that they had billions and he merely tens of millions, hence the self-derailment. Other examples abound with Elisabeth Holmes and Jeremy Falwell Jr. (both hubris “victims” one of investor fraud and the other of sexual predatory practices) or Don Regan (a former Merrill Lynch CEO, Reagan’s chief of staff in his second term, and a clear narcissist who finally got fired as Nancy had had enough).

Leadership is often best seen at times of crises. In a rare departure from leading American examples, David Gergen tells us about Nelson Mandela and his fight in South Africa in the 1960s and later when all seemed lost for his cause. He then stresses qualities leaders should deploy at crisis times, such as a great carelessness of self, prudent judgment, instinctive feeling or intuitive flair and coolness under fire. Leaders often better revealed at times of crisis should heed the following advice: i) head off crises that are preventable; ii) prepare for the worst; iii) when it hits, reassure the public and then solve the problem; and iv) when it subsides, write an after-action report.

David Gergen finally mentions additional traits that leaders should have to be full, such as having a good reading of history, humor (that can create the best environment for any team) and naturally, an integrated life, as leaders are also men and women usually with families. On the humorous point, Gergen gives the story of JFK and Pierre Salinger, his press secretary (incidentally I met once on a flight 30 years ago — a good man) asking him if he could secure 1,000 Havana cigars by 11:00 am the following morning. A perplexed but cigar-loving Salinger did his best to accomplish the somewhat challenging mission only to discover that JFK announced a trade embargo against Cuba at 11:00 that following day. Similarly, when Reagan got shot two months after he took office, by a Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley, and while going into surgery at Walter Reed Hospital, he turned around in his gurney, looked at his doctors and said: “I hope you’re all Republicans.”

David Gergen rightly reminds us of WW2 being the defining experience in shaping leadership for a generation. All Presidents, from JFK to George H.W. Bush, fought in it (incidentally one having his famed “PT 109” boat sliced by a Japanese destroyer, while the other’s Avenger aircraft got shot down over the South Pacific) — but for Jimmy Carter who was at the Naval Academy when the war ended — making what television anchor Tom Brokaw famously nicknamed “the greatest generation.” The war created leaders especially in America that was left as the strongest country in the world — economically, militarily, scientifically and culturally. While born in 1960, I felt this hard-to-describe reality which made so many of us worldwide want to be part of the story. This greatest generation wanted also to “serve,” creating a noble basis for the deployment of their hard-won leadership. While America was far from being perfect and racism, sexism and other forces were eating away at its undergirding, most Americans were proud of their democracy and whom they were, also as a result of WW2 and its societal impacts. These leaders sent America to the moon, created many international institutions, passed many legislations to advance the causes of women and communities of color, enhanced social security, developed world-class higher education and pushed science and technology further. This was made through collective and individual leadership often born in the ashes of a world war. As America is now faced with threats to its republic in forgotten ways since 1865, David Gergen wonders if new leaders will rise to the challenges and answer “the clarion call for unity and action.” He still bets on the young — the millennials and Gen Zers with a focus on both progressives and mainstream moderates — to lead the fight in an environment marked by rising global temperature and the insanity of those who refuse the Covid vaccine, putting their own families at risk. He could have added the insanity of mass shootings like recently at Uvalde and in suburban Chicago, not to mention the astounding US Supreme Court decisions we saw last June.

It is worth noting David Gergen, in spite of his advanced age, is definitely in touch with our times and often very vocal in his defense of movements that he sees as expressions of leadership, but which some would find controversial — if not in their essence, at least in the exercise of their agendas, such as BLM or Black Lives Matter that, while grounded in well-known tragedies, also led at times to violent demonstrations triggering destruction and property theft in recent years. He also found leadership in footballer Colin Kaepernick disrespectfully kneeling down at the time of the national anthem, as a sign of protest and demand for racial justice, that indeed became followed by many. Personally, while I can understand the historical roots and current societal triggers of such activism, I am equally not keen on statues brutally going down — not a sign of great leadership in action — as I believe that we should live with and learn from our history, trying to improve the future without erasing the past, which is also who we are, or allowing uncontrolled violence on the altar of demand for any type of justice. However, he also stresses similar milestones that most, if not all, would welcome, such as the election of Michelle Wu, the first Asian American female mayor of Boston. It is clear that he sees the rise of movements like BLM and others as a response to the toxic atmosphere created by the presidency (leadership?) of Donald Trump, a man who paradoxically may have unwittingly “woken up” activism. He also sees the current nature of those movements, not all aggressive in their expressions but certainly forceful, as reflecting the current times we know and the engagement of the younger generations. Some of the new and very young leaders, like the often odd, but powerful, Greta Thunberg or the figureheads of the Parkland School student survivors, while determined in their message, be it on climate change or mass shootings — both sadly ever topical matters — fight the good fights also in remarkable ways that go beyond their years. He sees them, borrowing from Steve Jobs, making “a dent in the universe” in five ways: leading social movements; becoming elected officials; being social entrepreneurs; joining the national service; and/or simply but crucially being voices of change. His main advice is to start “now” and “throw yourself in the arena,” an expression he borrows from Theodore Roosevelt’s memorable speech, often referred to these days, on “Citizenship in a Republic” at the Sorbonne after his presidency in April 1910.

One theme David Gergen does not address in his book is that there can also be bad leaders, as history showed with Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, who caused massive death and misery to millions in Europe, including in their own countries. While they led their countries to their massive losses, or eventually later disappearance, were they “leaders” according to David Gergen’s rule book? Can leadership be achieved for the wrong reasons and against most of the values and principles shown in his book? Are the leaders of China and especially Russia today to be considered leaders according to David Gergen? All while Vladimir Putin benefits — as far as we know — from the support of a majority of Russians, his “followers,” in a strange “Stockholm syndrome” way, even after the unprecedented and tragic Ukraine invasion that must be hard to conceal or show in the best light, even if the Kremlin is the greatest domestic sales organization and controller of news on earth. And would President Trump, while having achieved the top role in the land, be considered a true leader knowing the blows, at times of a long-term nature, he delivered to America leading to the state of quasi-civil war and institutional demise seen across its entire society? Some of the greatest examples of the Trump legacy can be seen today in the US Supreme Court, now time and time again politicizing its decisions — overturning 49-year old Roe V. Wade, 100-year old New York gun concealment legislation, EPA’s ability to curb carbon emissions — under the veneer of legal review, or an overstated focus on historical and legal form over substance — all against a clear and massive majority opinion of Americans against these court moves, and the pleasure of some largely unrepresentative political, religious and business lobbies.

In his Executive Summary, David Gergen gives us a nine page “20 key takeaways,” perhaps as a recognition that in 2022 the attention span has been reduced via current means like social media and our tech world, resulting in people reading far fewer books (a sad thought that hopefully is still unproven). Again, his main audience is American, explaining his natural focus, though his takeaways are rather universal. Each would deserve to be read in full.

  1. Our country needs a serious course correction
  2. Prepare now to pass the torch to new generations
  3. Leadership, always hard, has become harder
  4. Leadership comes from within
  5. Have three objectives early
  6. Find your true north
  7. Focus on your strengths
  8. Extend your leadership journey outside yourself
  9. Try hard things, fail, move on
  10. You are never too young to lead
  11. Devote a year to national service
  12. Secure your finance
  13. Embrace crucible moments
  14. Learn to manage your boss
  15. Mobilize others through persuasion
  16. Your greatest enemy might be you
  17. Learn from new models of leadership
  18. Seek guidance from the past and present
  19. Friends and networks still matter
  20. Maintain a celestial spark

“Hearts touched with fire” is a great book of the journey type into the soul of people who have made a difference around them, while usually impacting society. It is definitely a summer read for those who may want to go back to basics and seek more sanity in our challenging world.

On a personal note, it might be a sign of wise and forward-thinking leadership for David Gergen to send a copy of his book to Vladimir Putin (as long as sanctions are not infringed of course).

Warmest regards,