At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, thinkers and influencers across industries came together to discuss the issues and challenges that will shape our future. There at Aspen, Adam Grant, author of Originals and Give and Take, got the chance to talk with David Gergen, Senior Political Analyst at CNN and former presidential advisor. They discussed the importance of character, the best books for leaders, and the 2016 election. Below is their conversation (edited for clarity).
Adam Grant: Are there universal qualities in effective leaders, presidents, and beyond?
David Gergen: This is a mysterious field. It’s a soft field, and a lot of this is impressionistic. We don’t have the kind of research in the leadership field that we have in political science or economics. There are some fundamental lessons that leadership is often about context and the hand you’re dealt when you become the leader. If Hillary Clinton becomes President, what will she face, and what kind of qualities will she need in order to succeed as President?
After the book came out, along came Jimmy Carter who had enormous character, but he wound up in the wrong job. He should have been a saint, not a president.
Context matters a great deal, but I would argue that there are some qualities that are universal, regardless of context, time, or place. One of those, probably the most important, David McCall said, “is character.” He wrote that in his book about Harry Truman, and he loved Truman because Truman was so authentic, he was a man of enormous character. We often try to learn from the weaknesses as well as the strengths of our preceding Presidents. When Richard Nixon went down, James David Barber, the political scientist, led a movement in the leadership field to say that character is at the front and center. Barber wrote a book about character and predicted that a person of character in the White House would succeed. After the book came out, along came Jimmy Carter who had enormous character, but he wound up in the wrong job. He should have been a saint, not a president. He’s a wonderful man.
Adam: I’m sorry, is saint a job description?
David: Well, it’s not a job description, but it is a calling, don’t you think? Since then we bounced around. Today, with Barack Obama as President, a lot of Americans are looking for a strong man, a new Caesar, and that is the appeal of Trump to some voters. Obviously he has driven away a lot of other Americans. If you had to summarize the critical elements that are universally needed in a President, I always start with character. Frankly, I thought Bill Clinton was one our most effective presidents, but he had flaws that cost him. I think character is first. I think secondly, judgment is extremely important — a sense of history, proportion, and consequences. Someone who’s well versed in the past is going to be a better leader.
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I had the opportunity to go out to the Truman Library, and we were talking about what a wonderful President he was. He gave a speech to high school kids after he left the presidency, and he said, “Not every reader is a leader, but every leader is a reader.” I believe that. I think that helps to form your judgement, and we saw that weakness in George W. Bush. We’ve learned since the presidency he’s actually a very funny guy, but he hadn’t really thought about a lot of the issues that came his way. He never really traveled as a young guy. He had a lot of discretionary income, but before he became president he’d never been to London, Paris, Berlin, or Moscow. He just hadn’t traveled the world, and I think as a result of that, he didn’t have the kind of judgement going into Iraq that you would want in a more experienced President. He paid a price for that.
That’s the third element. You need a vision. You need to have some sense of where are we driving toward. A leadership is not about follow-ship, it is about mobilizing others in the pursuit of shared goals. Those to me are the essentials.
Adam: When you think about character, what are the values that you think are most core?
David: Obviously, I think integrity is critical. In today’s world, when there’s so much cynicism and social media encourages us to be cynical, and we’ve been let down so often by the elites, there’s a tendency to disbelieve. One of the serious issues we have in this campaign is we have two candidates for President, and in each case, more than half the country doesn’t trust them. That’s a very hard challenge for a President. If you want to take the country in a new direction, you often have to persuade people. Leadership used to be, as you know, top down, “Follow me or else. I’ll run you through with a sword,” or “You’ll go to prison,” or “You’ll do this.” Now it’s about persuasion and persuasion rests very heavily on, “I can trust you. What you tell me is true. You’re the same person Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday. You’re going to be steady and open with me.” Those are very important qualities now, and they ring very true in this election.
Adam: You talked about every leader being a reader. What are the essential books that you would say a President has to read entering the oval office?
David: Reading biographies is a very helpful way to prepare for the presidency. You realize that these people we put up on Mount Rushmore actually were very human. They did not have a whole string of successes in their lives. They usually had a lot of adversity. They had to learn to be resilient, to bounce back. It’s helpful to read the biographies, whether it’s Washington or Lincoln or FDR. In today’s world, I think it’s critical somebody reads the biography of Mandela. There are a growing number of women, thankfully, who are coming into positions of power. What made Angela Merkel the leader she is? What made Margaret Thatcher? Those biographies are important. Somebody of my generation, I read about Churchill. I find inspiration in Churchill.
Strikingly, one of the reasons that Rudy Giuliani was so good, hours after 9/11, as a mayor, he had a biography of Churchill on his bedside and he’d been reading it. He read about the importance of strength, being able to stand up for people, and being there on the scene, sharing the grief.
Adam: Is there anything that’s counterintuitive, that you would have normally thought would lead to ineffective leadership that is actually effective or vice versa?
Yes, people want a man or a woman of integrity, but they’re not looking for a saint. They are looking for someone who can actually get things done
David: Well, very counterintuitive was the whole tragic comedy that Bill Clinton went through over Monica Lewinsky. It looked like it might sink him. The Republicans were outrageous in impeaching him. That’s not what the Constitution, I think, intended. Nonetheless, it looked like he would be permanently damaged, and in those days he was seen as a friendly rogue. Everybody knew he was a rogue before he got there, and people were very forgiving. The country is forgiving. His opposition went after him, but he went on from there and did a lot of important things. He wound up with approval ratings in the 60’s. Yes, people want a man or a woman of integrity, but they’re not looking for a saint. They are looking for someone who can actually get things done, and Bill Clinton was more valued for getting things done and getting the economy moving.
For the first time in 30 years, the fastest rising part of the population in terms of economics was the bottom percentile. That happened in the mid-90’s. Income was being redistributed down in a way that was very healthy, and it was a happier country. And he negotiated. Even though he had enemies who impeached him in Congress, he negotiated welfare reform, and he negotiated four straight balanced budgets with the Republicans. That was absolutely remarkable. Leadership is a complex thing, and I think people understand that they’re not going to get the perfect person, but they don’t want that person disabled by their weaknesses.
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Adam: That makes me wonder about the other leadership role that’s going to be prominent soon, which is the vice presidency. That role seems to have more power than it once did. We’re going to have two candidates making some pretty consequential choices. Do you have a prediction about who’s going to be chosen for VP?
David: No, but the Vice Presidency has become a very important job. The Vice President used to sit in a different building from the West Wing of the White House. He sat in the building next door, and Walter Mondale was the first one who moved into the West Wing. There’s an old saying, “Nothing propinks like propinquity.” He was right down the hall from the Oval Office, and knew the meetings, when they were coming and going, so he had free access and that gave him a lot more voice. These vice presidential candidates have increasingly become critical advisors. Joe Biden has been a critical advisor for Barack Obama.
In looking at the person, you want to think about more than what extra votes they might pick up, but also, how valuable is this person going to be, and can I trust this person? I don’t think anybody knows where Donald Trump is going to go. All along, there have been mysteries about who he is talking to. He seems to be running this out of his pocket, but has no prominent intellectuals or policy makers who have identified with him. He’s got some choices, but I would think he would want a wow factor. He’d want somebody you’d say, “Wow, I didn’t realize he would hang around with people like that. If he’s going to be bring that person to Washington, then he’s going to bring other people I respect.” That would make a major difference for him. If David Petraeus hadn’t run into issues, he’s that kind of person.
With Hillary Clinton, I think it’s come down essentially to two people, with two or three dark horses. The biggest choice she has to make right now is between Elizabeth Warren or Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. There are pluses and minuses for both sides. Elizabeth Warren would fire up her base and bring a lot of the Bernie Sanders voters in. Elizabeth Warren is a very bright woman. There’s something exciting about having two women running. For centuries we’ve had two men running every time; are we going to now say, “No, it can’t be two women, it’s one woman too many”? I think the real issue is whether many voters see Elizabeth Warren so far left that they’re not going to get the kind of President they would like. Also, Elizabeth Warren helps in that she does get under Donald Trump’s skin. It’s very clear he’s going to run a smashing campaign against Hillary. I don’t think she wants to be the person responding every time. She needs to be above that and occasionally do it with some humor, but she needs an attack dog. That often goes to the Vice Presidency. Elizabeth Warren would be terrific at that role.
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The two of them were together yesterday at a rally, and the chemistry seemed to be pretty good. People in private say they don’t know each other well enough, and they’re wary of each other. I can just tell you one thing, a President does not like to be in the position of waking up each day wondering what their Vice President is up to that day.
Adam: I wouldn’t want to be either.
David: Tim Kaine becomes the safer choice, and he is a man of many talents. He was on the shortlist for Barack Obama to be a Vice President. One of Obama’s top people told me the reason we didn’t go to Tim Kaine was he was too much like Obama. They had the same temperament. They were very similar personalities, and in Biden they saw differences that they liked. Does Tim Kaine give you fire? I don’t think so, but he gives you a very strong person next to you in the White House over 4 to 8 years.
Adam: Whoever gets elected, what’s the most important piece of advice you would offer for managing the transition and starting on the right foot?
David: Be humble and patient, and work toward the center. The country is going to be desperately in need of some progress in the first couple of years of whoever the new president is. Power is evanescent in the White House. It winds down quickly. You’ve got about a year as a new president to get your big things done, and the only way you’re going to do that is to reach across the aisle and develop a more consensus-like approach to getting new things done, whether it’s tax reform or immigration. If we have fisticuffs that go straight from the campaign into the presidency, it’s going to be a mess, and we’re going to go through a very distressing period. As it is, I think the next few years are going to be rough, not only in international affairs, but here at home. I think we need a president with a real sense of history. Progress is going to come by working together and not by the splintered, partisan, poisonous kind of politics we’ve had recently.