Review of “Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made”, by David Gergen

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From Plato to David Petraeus, distinguished writers have attempted to uncover the core principles and behaviors of successful leaders. They have emphasized tenacity and sensitivity, thunderous eloquence and quiet contemplation, and, more recently, devotion to True North and “emotional intelligence”. Leadership often seems to be everything and nothing at the same time – a mixture of banal advice, contradictory analyzes and ponderously obvious observations. Has a successful leader ever used any of the leadership books?

Most leaders pay more attention to experience – their own and that of others, learned by reading history. The founders of the United States thought deeply about their grievances with the British Empire and immersed themselves in the republican alternatives of ancient Rome and Renaissance Italy. They had rich historical inspirations but few theories. The same could be said of the most revered leaders of the past century: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. Knowledge of the successes and failures of their predecessors, not abstract wisdom about leadership, led them to new heights after many failures.

David Gergen has worked for four US presidents – Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton – and he has witnessed their struggles with leadership up close. In his remarkable new book, “Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made,” he rejects universal models of leadership. Its heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and include John F. Kennedy, George HW Bush, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg.

All of these personalities went their own way, succeeding in very different environments. Gergen builds his narrative around their varied and harrowing experiences rather than abstract principles. It provides plenty of stories, often mini-biographies, that can help a budding leader find her own relevant examples without requiring a perfect fit. The leadership Gergen adopts is in the hands of the reader – young readers, he hopes – not a set of timeless lessons. His book is more of a seductive kaleidoscope than a sermon, research paper, or how-to guide.

Gergen begins with what he calls the “inner journey”. It involves personal preparation to work with others to achieve what the author calls “ambitious goals.” Individuals become leaders, as Gergen describes it, by finding their passions and nurturing an “integrated life” that allows for the consistent pursuit of purpose within a sustainable framework. The inner journey necessarily passes through setbacks and “crucibles” of challenge. Leaders never master themselves or their environment, but they learn to convert adversity into opportunities for self-improvement. Gergen is particularly compelling in her account of the inner journey of former Washington Post editor Katharine Graham, who painfully turned some of the hardest days for herself and the paper into notable accomplishments spanning Watergate, the Vietnam War and other relevant topics. The inner journey, as elucidated by Gergen, succeeds when the rising leader finds her footing – her sea legs – for choppy waters.

The “outward journey” involves changing others, including bosses, voters, and even opponents. Leadership is always a team sport, even in dictatorships, because you need the help of others to get things done. “In most organizations,” Gergen writes, “the hardest part is not coming up with ideas but turning those ideas into reality.” It features James Baker’s time as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff (and Gergen’s boss). Baker quietly and consistently cultivated strong bonds with members of Congress, especially the powerful figures across the aisle. He also worked closely with reporters to help them get the facts and cover the administration fairly and comprehensively. Baker has established a relationship of trust with various stakeholders and made himself indispensable; he did not bully, prevaricate, or seek blind loyalty. He knew how to collaborate with contradictory personalities in a highly politicized atmosphere. Gergen recounts Baker’s intense preparation, careful thought, and unwavering determination to get the job done for the president and the country.

In some ways, Baker is the most important figure in Gergen’s compelling, multi-layered book. As other biographers—particularly Peter Baker and Susan Glasser—have recounted, Baker came to Washington as an elite lawyer from Houston, with a distinguished family, to help run the country. He was initially a Democrat but devoted his prodigious energies to running campaigns, the White House and the foreign policy of the Republicans he believed in. He worked to solve tough problems and do great things: tax relief and economic growth, defense of the world’s oil supply, and a peaceful end to the Cold War. And he did all of those things by bridging partisan divisions. It’s impossible to imagine Baker stalking his opponents on Twitter.

Gergen wrote “Hearts Touched With Fire” to bring characters like Baker to life for young men and women concerned about the future of the United States and the world. He doesn’t want them to copy Baker, or any of the other subjects of the book, but to be inspired to solve tough problems and do great things again. He explains that much of the “death and destruction” of the past two decades “could have been avoided if we had paid attention and acted on the first signs of trouble”. And he declares that young people must come together to do so.

They will obviously need new leaders, with different experiences and perspectives than their predecessors. That’s the main point of this inspiring and helpful book – helping a new generation reinvent leadership for our troubled times. By examining how others have dealt with past challenges, young men and women can deepen their understanding of themselves, their world, and their options. Few books have so much to offer readers considering entering the arena. We should hope they heed Gergen’s compelling call to action.

Jeremi Suri is a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. His book “Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy” is coming this fall. He hosts a weekly podcast, “This Is Democracy”.

How are great leaders made?

Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $29.

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