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David Gergen: Passing the Torch to Gen-Z

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David Gergen: Passing the Torch to Gen-Z

David Gergen served in senior roles for four Presidents: Nixon, Ford, H.W. Bush, and Clinton. He’s since become an award winning journalist, author, and Harvard Professor.

His new book, Hearts Touched with Fire, discusses how we must pass the torch to the younger generations.

You can follow David on Twitter @David_Gergen.

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation's largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more or to join their mission, go to votevets.org.

David Gergen:

We've lost a lot of our self pride. We've lost a lot of our can-do spirit. And I think the next generations bring to the table a freshness. They bring fresh blood. They bring fresh vision. And I think they bring fresh hope. So I'm a big believer in beginning to share responsibility now with the younger generations and doing everything we can to help them prepare themselves for lives of service and leadership.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is David Gergen, who served as a senior advisor to four American presidents. He's the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. And most importantly, as far as I'm concerned, he was the undergraduate professor who had the greatest impact on me. We've managed to stay in touch over the years, and I am thrilled to talk to him today about his new book, Hearts Touched with Fire.

David, welcome to Burn the Boats.

David Gergen:

Thank you, Ken. It's good to be with you. We stretch back, I was thinking about this, at least a quarter century, back into the mid 1990s, I think, when we were first in a classroom together and you went on to honorable service in the military. We kept up during that. And then you've been willing to put yourself out there on the line through the political process. So it's been fun to watch. I take great pride in all that you've accomplished, and I would thank you for all your many, many services.

Ken Harbaugh:

Oh, thank you, David. You are aging both of us. As you say that out loud, I am reflecting on the fact that we have two Gen Z'ers on the line, my producer, and sound engineer, and this conversation is going to be about passing the torch.

David Gergen:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

As I was reading your book and thinking ahead to this conversation, I kept coming back to a phrase that you've used a few times in interviews in describing your worldview. You call yourself a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist.

David Gergen:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that?

David Gergen:

Well, sure. But let me just say, I do think we're on an unsustainable path right now as a people, as a nation. That we've had crisis after crisis, a cascade of crises over recent years that would in normal times have demanded a lot of public attention and we would've made progress on the crises. And this time out, I'm afraid the crises are making mincemeat of us. We're in a much weaker position as a people than we were, say, 15 years ago. And so I think we have to ask ourselves what is there that can help us get out of this? What forces can we use? And I am increasingly of the view that one of the most important forces for the future and where I see the glimmerings of hope over the horizon is among the young. And I do think it's time to pass the torch increasingly from the generation that is now running the show, namely the Baby Boom generation. I think it's time to start passing that torch much more quickly to Millennials and to Gen Z.

I don't want to leave out Gen X. That's the middle, that's the sandwich generation. They've been denied the opportunity to serve at major positions of leadership in the country. I think they need more time at bat as a matter of fairness. Plus I think a lot of them, the Gen X, are darn good. They were people born between 1965 and 1980. That's generally the way it's looked at. Many of them are now in their forties and fifties. So I think they're the bridge into the near term future and to try to deal with I think the rough waters ahead. But long term our future rests with the Millennials and Gen Z. It's there that I think that it's sort of make, make or break time.

But I'm optimistic because I've had a chance to see them in classrooms, starting with you, Ken, way back when. I've seen people come through classrooms, and I'm increasingly impressed by the quality of young people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, coming back from years in military service, and the promise that they hold for the country. I think they're very similar to the World War II generation, what Tom Brokaw called the greatest generation, and that's the nickname that's stuck. The military veterans coming back into our civilian workforce now, I think have a lot of that same discipline and commitment and patriotism that we saw in the World War II veterans. So they themselves, I think, are a unit. Some of them have succumbed to the siren songs of the far right. There are many, many others who I think will want to run for office, who want to make a difference in their communities, who care about service, who care about national service. And I'm encouraged by that.

But let me just add one last thing and then I'll stop gassing on. There are also other streams of people, young people, coming into the arena and trying to change things. And I think they also hold great promise. Namely they are people of color, and especially when Black women, I think, have now gained the moral high ground in so many different ways and have been so productive. You think about the Me Too movement started by a young Black woman. Or if you talk about Black Lives Matter, started by three young Black women. Just time after time now we see the effort going forward, Stacey in Atlanta, Stacey Abrams, is another good example of Black women who are entering the arena. And I think that holds promise as well, along with the veterans. So there's much, I think, we can look to. Those young people need a lot of encouragement. They need a lot of support. It's going to be a long fight in the years ahead. This is probably the fight of a generation, take 15 years or 20 years to get through it. But if we apply ourselves and if we really are serious about it and not just playing games, I think we have a chance to turn this civic culture into something much healthier, and restore the kind of trust in institutions and in leadership and the can-do spirit of the World War II generation. I think all those things are within reach.

Ken Harbaugh:

You have been making this forceful appeal to your generation to pass the torch.

David Gergen:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Inspired, of course, by the energy and activism of younger generations. The problem I have with that appeal though, is that it only works on those willing to cede power, and what you are left with is those jealously guarding their power as the only ones left holding onto it and still refusing to pass the torch. And you're seeing this in the generation of political leadership running, I'll just pick one institution, Washington today. But you see it everywhere. I guess it begs the question. Does the torch have to be seized or is it more of a baton relay?

David Gergen:

Ah-hah. Well, that's a really, really good question. Nancy Pelosi makes the argument that her father taught her a long time ago that if you want power you have to seize it. That's your only choice. It doesn't work otherwise. I don't believe that. You and I have lived through a period when the World War II generation started passing the torch to the Baby Boomers. That started occurring back in the 1990s. They didn't cling to power. They retired, and retired gracefully during that time.

You know, most American corporations ask people over 65 to step back. They can continue to provide advice and so forth to them, but corporations generally tend to avoid having CEOs who are over 65. Yet in politics, we've got numerous leaders who are in the seventies, and of course, we've got people now entering their eighties. I've been somewhat startled recently because I've made the argument publicly. And as this book has come out, I've made the argument that there's a very good chance we're going to have two nominees for the presidency, one on the Republican side in Trump, and one on the Democratic side and Biden, and they'll both be competing against each other. But the issue that comes up is that one of them is going to win and be governing as president in their eighties. We've never had anything like that before, and I think it's a mistake. There are individuals who are fine going into their eighties, but you can't tell what's going to happen during that time. I just turned 80. And I can just tell you, your future is much more unpredictable. You're more vulnerable. And frankly, I think people who are older become more cautious. They want to stick to the status quo because that's what they know. But it's not what we need. We need bold leadership. We need leadership that's not complacent, or is willing to accept the path we're on. We simply have to get off this. So, I've said, "Look, if it's Biden and Trump, I think both of them ought to think about stepping back and opening the door to some others." There are other people out there in each party. Now some of them are radicals, let's just face it. There's a strong, extreme wing on the Republican side, and there's a growing strong, extreme wing on the Democratic side. And you have to realize that as we open the doors to newcomers, you're going to find some who are extremists.

But even so I think the bulk of the people who we'd be opening doors to, if we play this right, will be productive members of society. I've had the experience, Ken, of asking some of the smartest people I know, "If the United States was participating in a poker game and we held one set of cards as the US. One of our competitors was from India. One was from China, and one was from Russia. Whose hand would you like to play? Whose hand would be the best hand to play?" To a person, smart people tell me, "I'd play the US hand. We have the high cards in the game." What our problem is, we haven't been playing the cards very well. People playing low cards are outsmarting us too often. And they're hungry. And they're moving. And we sit here on top of things on innovation, our capacity for innovation, our great universities. We're tearing ourselves apart about what conversations are woke and which ones aren't, when we ought to be settling down and getting some education.

Ken Harbaugh:

I agree that we still have a winning hand. We have not been playing it well. In a recent interview, I believe it was with Judy Woodruff, you said that as a whole, this is in quotes now, "The baby boomer generation has been a disappointment."

David Gergen:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Say a little bit about that, but then I want to dive into why, and whether it's some macroeconomic force or if there's something psychic at work.

David Gergen:

Sure. Yeah. I'm not sure we know the answer to that question. But I think it's important to compare two generations and the legacy they left behind. One would be the World War II generation. They were not a perfect generation. They gave us Vietnam. They gave us Watergate. They were too slow in advancing the rights of women. They were too slow in advancing the rights of people of color. But if you look at the overall pattern and where they left us, where America stood as they left the stage, they left behind an America that was the strongest since the days of ancient Rome. In economic terms, in military terms, in political terms, in cultural terms. We were looked to by the rest of the world as the leading nation. Many people thought it was a unipolar nation. The Fukuyama argument, that basically history was over, turned out to be way too optimistic. But there was that sense coming out of the World War II generation years, that we could do anything. We could send a man to the man in 10 years. That was the Kennedy pledge, and we beat the number. We came out better than 10 years. We had the man on the moon. And it was that spirit, I think, that they left behind, which was very important to sort of making continued progress.

Now, compare that to what the Baby Boom generation is going to leave behind. They've been there now running things since the early 1990s. And what we have is a whole series of crises now that have left us as an angry, exhausted, frustrated people. And we're coming out of the period worried about the future of our democracy. We didn't worry about democracy when we had the military veterans coming out, because they were so committed to democracy. But group is more committed to personal gain, and putting power first in front of principal. We're in some despair about looking for ‘how do we solve this?’ That's why I'm arguing that I think it's time to turn to younger generations. So that's what that statement comes from, Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

I don't disagree. I'm most interested in the underlying causes. Is it that generation wasn't tested? That they were not forged by some unifying, albeit traumatic experience? Was it a generation that felt the need to overcompensate for the achievements of the prior generation? The reason I'm asking is because I'm sure the lessons could convey to other generations.

David Gergen:

Yeah. Look, I think one of the greatest problems we have with the Baby Boom generation is how divided it is. The World War II generation, again, left us a more united people. Now we're deeply, deeply divided. As I look at the history, and I'm an amateur at this so forgive me, there're professional historians, I'm sure, who could make a much better argument. But as I see it, the division started way back in the early childhood, when you had the traditionalists who raised their children to have a certain toughness, a mental toughness, a physical toughness, because that's what the world required, and the war. The children of the World War II generations, many of them were raised to be much more traditional, where at the same time there was sprouting up in the midst, there were people who had a different view and wanted to change the culture, who did not accept the status quo. So I think in particular, the sixties were where the force behind the divisions that came with the Vietnam War. Civil rights to a lesser extent. But the Vietnam war was like an accident in the middle of the Baby Boom generation. You found people who went to school in places like Texas or South Dakota or Wyoming, the Western states by and large, and some of the Southeastern states by and large. They were the traditionalists. They're the ones who've supported Trump in many ways. They've left behind, I'm afraid for the moment, the traditional Republican party. But they're into a bubble in which they have this sense of old-fashioned things. The white Christians, they've become nationalists.

So it's a complicated story. But there is one side, then, who are attacking the traditions and feel we've got to move on. We've got to do better with race. We've got to do better with conflict, all these kind of questions. And I think what you find is a generation now, the Baby Boomers who are not only divided, but almost helplessly divided. I just don't see the evidence that the Baby Boom generation can get us out of the mess we're in.

Ken Harbaugh:

You started your political career as a Republican, working for Republican administrations, and then famously worked for a democratic administration, Bill Clinton's.

David Gergen:

Right.

Ken Harbaugh:

You have been adamant in characterizing the modern iteration of the Republican party as bearing little resemblance to the party you served.

David Gergen:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

How did it go so badly off the rails?

David Gergen:

Well, it's been very, very hard for anybody to govern and govern successfully in Washington. You pointed the finger at Washington, I think appropriately, a few minutes ago. But if you go back to where I think the divisions became very much more apparent and sharper or jagged, it came in the early nineties. That is when the World War II generation basically left the stage.

The way I count this is, if you go back in history, the World War II generation began taking over things with Jack Kennedy. He was a charismatic, young, ‘we can do anything’, ‘we can go to the moon’, kind of leader. It's the first of the World War II generation to be in the White House. We had seven presidents from Kennedy, as the youngest, up through George Bush, senior, the oldest. Seven presidents. All seven wore a military uniform. Six of them were in the war itself. Jimmy Carter was still in the Naval Academy when the war ended. He was a student, he graduated. He went on to serve honorably in the Navy. So you have these seven presidents. And I think that period in retrospect, especially the early years of that period, were part of a golden period in American public life, a golden period that went all the way back to the end of World War II and up through the much of the sixties before we got into Vietnam and Watergate. And so that's sort of how historically we got to the early 1990s.

The World War II generation turns over the reins to the Baby Boomers. We then have five presidents, starting with Bill Clinton and going up through where we are now. We've had five presidents, both sides of the aisle, and none of them wore a military uniform. None of them were in active service. George W. Bush to his credit in the National Guard. But as the saying goes, you can't claim too much out of that if you're defending the great state of Texas from the state of Oklahoma.

So that period is when I think the division started up, and it was very, very important. Clinton comes in '92. He's a strong baby boomer. In '94, Gingrich takes the power. Things start changing in the House of Representatives as Gingrich seizes power. And he does it very smartly. He's a determined guy. One of the things you see on the right is often they take their politics more seriously. Politics of most people, many people on the right, strong conservative politics, is a 24/7 kind of proposition. And on the left, people tend to be a little more complacent, and they tend to be weekend warriors. And you get a different result when that happens.

Gingrich and company, they took control of the House of Representatives. And then there were a number of people in the Gingrich group who got elected to the Senate, and the new traditions of the House, they brought over into the Senate chambers. And now we see with Trump, and with some of the recent people on the Republican side, how that division and divisiveness, that poison has seeped in now into the White House.

It's into almost all of our institutions. It hasn't hit the courts yet. Thank goodness it hasn't hit the Court. I think it's coming. But you can see on many different sides just these divisions get set in, and it's really, really hard to overcome them. Look at JD Vance in Ohio. He's someone familiar to you. Who thought that JD Vance would turn so far to the hard right as he has? The book he wrote didn't suggest that. It suggested a man who was very open to change, and was proud of a lot of things that had happened in the past, and was not as radical as Vance has become. But there he is, for better or for worse as some people would say. There are people in Ohio and outside who think the world of JD Vance. But there are people on the other side who've taken a look and said, "I don't think so."

Ken Harbaugh:

It feels now that everything has become political, politicized. And I might take issue with your defense of the Court.

David Gergen:

Yeah. Well, the Court, I do think, has been politicized. I have some hope in John Roberts who believes in the institution of the Court, and wants to protect the Court. And I have some hope, perhaps misplaced that, ultimately they can work this out, but who knows for sure.

Ken Harbaugh:

But almost every walk of life now has been affected by, as you put it, that seeping poison. There was a recent study about Thanksgiving dinners. My producer can remind me who we interviewed about it, but Thanksgiving dinners in swing districts are on average 40 minutes shorter. Now judging by anonymized cell phone tracking, because people just cannot talk to each other anymore. And I don't know how intentional this is in your book, but in the epilogue, you talk about the five paths into the future. One of them is elected officials, but the others all implicate politics as well, social movements, national service, voices of change. None of them are effective in this day and age without some political power behind them. And I find that enormously discouraging.

I'll go to the beginning of your book where you talk about the power of young people to energize movements. You start with the March for Our Lives kids. We're having this conversation in the wake of another horrific school shooting. I look at the years that have gone by since March for Our Lives and go all the way back to Columbine, and there has been no meaningful federal led legislation. So it begs the question to me, if politics is so dominating, what hope should young people hold for other kinds of movements, social movements, and change movements?

David Gergen:

Well, I appreciate your point. And I think you speak for millions of young people who are discouraged. I meet a lot of young people who say, "I'd really like to make a difference in life, but I'm not sure how, because all the power seems to be on the people who are the [againers]." You have young people your age who throw up their hands and say, "Look, I'm not sure how much time I want to spend with this. I do have a career I'm pursuing. I've got a wife who's working. We have a couple of kids. We have three kids. We've got a mortgage we got to meet. How can I spend my time? And why should I spend my time throwing myself into a cause that's going nowhere?" Well, if I thought everything was going nowhere, I would be equally discouraged. But I do believe there are some areas of our national life which have gotten better. One of them I think I'm really impressed with is how much progress we've made, quick progress we've made on gay rights. It's no longer a stigma to be gay, and increasingly I think there's an acceptance and embrace of gay rights across the board. You find Republicans will vote for it as well as Democrats.

It's not perfect by any means, and there are people who are retrograde on that. But I thought the movement for gay rights and some of those people who led that movement came out of my classrooms. I saw what they did. I had one young man who was my student who came over and said, "Before I leave this school, I want to make sure I've changed your mind about gay rights or any reluctance you have." We spent a lot of time talking to each other, and he was extremely persuasive. I became a complete convert to gay rights. I've had a personal journey on that. I grew up in the South. I was more traditional, more of a traditionalist. I had some reservations about gay rights, but now I completely believe in it. And that would not have happened had it not been for the movement that I think so many people on the gay side did. They very, very smartly, wisely recruited a lot of non gays to join the effort.

We've come a long way, and I think in the days ahead our struggle is going to be increasingly, I think, with the fact we're a multiethnic society. We're heading toward a day when the white majority is going to disappear, and you're going to find increasing emphasis upon this whole conspiracy theory, replacement theory as it's called. And that is a lot of Hispanics and others are coming across our borders. They're going to take away the jobs and take away the power that whites feel is theirs. It's a white society and there's going to be a clash on that. That's coming. You can already see it. I think it's one going to be one of the big tests.

But I do think that you can find in other people, like the Me Too movement has done a lot of good in the world. The AOC's of the world, I don't agree with AOC on her politics, a lot of her politics. They're too far left from me. But I celebrate the fact that she's in the arena and trying to stir things up. There are a lot of young people now who are going to the barricades and are willing to fight for it because they really feel strongly that this is going to be their country. And if we leave behind irreversible changes in the climate, we're going to condemn our kids and our grandkids to lives that are going to be far more meager than the lives we're experiencing now. And a lot more anxiety and a lot more fear.

So, I think we ought to be very, very aware of how tough it is. We ought to be candid about how hard this is going to be. There are going to be a lot of lost fights in the years ahead, but if you keep at it, I think what you see is the history of America is one of a people who've had existential threats since the beginning of our republic. We had an existential threat in the Revolutionary War. We almost lost that war. George Washington lost six out of the first eight battles that his army went into. People thought it's over. And yet we came back. We had the Civil War, which could have left us broken and divided for decades upon decades upon decades. It took us a long time to get through it, but we did. We survived that existential threat. The Great Depression. And then you go on to World War II. You look at those four. John Meacham, the historian, has written wonderfully about this. But if you look at those four existential threats to the nation, each one we eventually overcame it, and the sort of the bright side won. That's not been true of some other countries. Every time we've had a real test, whether we're going to open our doors farther for voting, for example, in terms of rights. The side that has expanded and wanted to expand the rights of our individuals, rights of Blacks, the rights of women and that sort of things, those sides have eventually won. It has taken a long time. That's for sure. You look at Seneca Falls for women's rights. It took more than half a century for women to realize the aspirations of Seneca Falls. And you obviously look at the racial issues that we're still so laggard in, but we're making progress if you look at it overall, and it's worth the fight. If the younger generations give up the fight, God to help us because I do think that the authoritarian side of American life will come to the fore.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, we think a lot alike, and I'm really glad that you use that the progress of the LGBTQ+ movement in particular as your counterpoint for my short term pessimism, because I do the same thing.

David Gergen:

Yeah. I'm a short-term pessimist. I think the next few years are going to be really, really rough.

Ken Harbaugh:

The one indispensable ingredient for any of this, and this comes through in your book, is leadership. And the subtitle in fact is ‘How Great Leaders Are Made’. You don't go that deep into the subtitle, but you make a point there that great leaders, well, they may have certain fundamental attributes, but they're not born. They can be trained.

David Gergen:

Yeah. They can be made. There are leaders who are born, or would-be leaders who are born with some traits, but they're underdeveloped. Eisenhower, for example, came from this family that had almost no money. They had four kids, five kids. Lived in a one bedroom house in Abilene. But very early on, kids in the neighborhood liked to come over and play football, touch football with Ike. They turned over the organization of the games to him, and he became the star. He was going to become, I don't know, a professional, but he was a very, very strong athlete until he went to West Point. He had an injury there in football, and he had to give it up. He became a coach/ but that he had a natural bent toward it. But even Ike needed a lot of mentoring, a lot of development, before he became the leader, the four-star leader and the most respected man in America.

He had a mentor named Fox Conner. Eisenhower had gone to West Point. He had not been a good student. He'd been a good athlete. He was not a good student, and didn't seem very promising. At one point he was thinking about leaving the military because he seemed so stuck in place. Then he got an assignment in Panama, and there he met Fox Connor who was his superior officer. And Connor took him under his wing and opened his eyes to the books about leadership, from the ancients all the way up, and had him study. Then Ike really got enlightened and motivated, passionate. He went to the command general staff school and he was at the top of his class. He became a real leader over just those few years. And then he had time in the trenches. That made a big difference.

So I think if you look at most major leaders, it's been a journey. It hasn't come quickly. It's taken time. And usually you've gotten knocked down two or three times. They've had some crucibles in their lives. They've faced some really, really hard things, but they come through it and they become stronger for it. They become stronger for it. So I am a believer that just as societies can change, so can individuals, and you can strengthen yourself for the journey.

I devoted about the last two thirds of the book, I think Ken, to be a pragmatic, practical playbook for young aspiring leaders. I thought people in their twenties and thirties, there are lots of books about how to be successful as a CEO at 50, 40 or 50. There are not very many books out there about how to forge your path ahead when you're in your 20s, 30s and 40s, which I think is the formative period for so many people. What I'm trying to write about is, “Okay, here's some of the things you need to think about, you need to dig deeper on your own. But here's some of the experiences I've had. Here's some of the stories that I think make a difference, whether my stories or historical studies.”

One of my favorite quotes comes from Abigail Adams, John Adams' wife, who was an outstanding woman. She wrote a letter to their teenage son, John Quincy, when things were going badly, and it looked like America was not going to survive as a republic. Basically her argument was adversity is what brings out the best in us. From adversity, from periods of real hardship, come the statesmen of the future. And I believe that. I believe that just as we've seen our POWs, like John McCain and James Stockdale, the times they went through in Vietnam and Hanoi Hilton, how tough it was for them. But they emerged stronger than they went in. Look at Mandela. 27 years of isolation, basically, and he came out of Robben Island stronger than he went in. What you find is people who go through crucibles, you research.

There's a fellow named Daniel Seligman who's the father of positive psychology. Psychology traditionally has looked at what's wrong with people. Seligman said we ought to be focusing instead on what's right with people and how you can build up them up. What Seligman found in this research was that when people have real crucibles, they say FDR just had a devastating case of polio and went to the sidelines. He could never walk again. That's what I mean by coming through a crucible. There are three groups who come through crucibles. One is the group that comes through. They're knocked on their tail and they never manage to get up. They just have grievances the rest of their lives. They have dark clouds over them. They just never manage to get back. It's a smaller group, but it's important. Then you have a second group of people who come through crucibles who do recover and regain their own resilience. Over about a year's time, they become like what they were before, but not advanced. And then there's a third group, which is a special group who get knocked down. They pay a huge price. They have to work desperately hard to get back. They're resilient enough, not only to regain who they were, but they come through it with a greater sense of moral purpose. They come through asking how can I now devote my life to doing something meaningful? That's what Reagan did after he was shot. He said, "I was spared by God, and I'm giving the rest of my life to God and doing things that I think will advance my religious beliefs." That's the group of people, the people who come through there with moral purpose, those are the people who become the great, I think the leaders of the future and the ones we see, like Zelensky in Ukraine. You have to ask yourself in America today, "Where are our Zelenskys?"

Ken Harbaugh:

You don't directly invoke the great man theory of history. I don't think you use that phrase.

David Gergen:

No. Well, I do say I think that the great man theory is less important. It's still important to have individuals, but it's less important than it once was.

Ken Harbaugh:

The prevailing wisdom in historical studies of leadership, of course, is that individuals don't actually matter that much. It's waves of larger social movements which carry events along. People are caught up in them and rise to the crust of those waves, and we identify them later as leaders. But it's really broad historical currents that shape the times. How do you react to that given your study of individuals?

David Gergen:

Sure. Well, I have a somewhat different take on it, and that is that the individuals will always matter and they will always count. I don't buy into the determinist school that, say, Tolstoy represented. He argued that individuals are slaves of history. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, basically argues that had Napoleon not gone into Russia, invaded Russia as a French general, there would've been a different French general who would've gone. I just don't hold that. I think we have individual agency in life, and I think the future is often determined by what we decide, not the wave we're necessarily riding in.

And the question of do individuals matter? Arthur Schlesinger Jr., I quote him in the book, and he said, “Look in 1932-33, there was a young British politician who came to New York to give talks. He had a cab on Park Avenue, got out on the wrong side of the street, given the differences in driving, and got hit by and got hit by a car and was damn near killed. 14 months later, there was an American politician who was riding in an open car in Miami when a gunman came and in point by range tried to shoot him, and had it not been for a woman who jarred the arm of the gunman, would've killed him.”

Now, Schlesinger's question is this: "What if that young British politician in New York, Winston Churchill had died that night on the streets of New York? And what if that American politician in that open car in Miami, Franklin Roosevelt, would have died at the assassin's hand?" Everyone who looks at that question says Britain would not have been able to get through the war the way it did without Churchill, that he gave voice to the British lion, that he was incredibly important and the alternatives in Britain at that time were people who all wanted to basically sign peace and get the hell out. They wanted to give up and surrender. And Churchill said, no, no, we're not doing that. He led that.

So those are two examples of individuals who mattered a lot. Now you've got to complete the argument in terms of where we find ourselves in the 21st century. And that is that individuals still matter, but increasingly in organizations and in public life, it's not the man on the white horse who comes and saves us. What we need are people who are much better at constructive collaboration, and that is to work with others to accomplish something.

There's an old African proverb that if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. I think that proverb captures a lot of the idea that if you're going to make progress, you need to be able to collaborate and work with others, because there's no one single person who can do it anymore. The world is too complex and we're too interdependent.

Look at the supply chain problem we've had for how interdependent and how we're all tied to things that are really, really hard. You can't just break them apart. That constructive collaboration is increasingly the answer in so many fields of work, whether it's in scientific research or in innovation. Things are not just done in the garage anymore. They're done within places like Silicon valley. We got a lot of people who are trying to come up with innovative solutions.

To me what captures this in presidential terms, if you think about John Kennedy, one of the most memorable photographs of John Kennedy as president he's in the oval office alone at dusk hunched over a table and what apparently is a globe. And it's as if the weight of the world is upon him. That he, this individual, has to be a man on the white horse, had to rise to the great man theory. That's the view of the past. More recently, if you think about the photograph that captured Barack Obama's presidency, very, very well is Obama down in the situation room when we were chasing Osama. There in that photograph, it's not just Obama. It's his Secretary of State. It's his Secretary of Defense. It's his CIA Director. It's his White House Chief of Staff. All those people are there collaborating together, feeling their way along. It's not just Obama himself, in a study by himself meditating. It is a group of people who are together trying to solve a problem, and did solve a problem working with the US military.

So that's why I say we still need great individual leaders. They're really, really important to us. But in terms of solving the big social problems of our day, you also need to work in collaboration. You need to find people who can not only lead up. They can manage their bosses well. But can lead down and manage their teams well. But can also lead horizontally by collaborating with a lot of other forces.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm so glad you've drawn that out because otherwise there's a fundamental tension between this idea of the indispensable leader on the white horse, and the need to pass the torch.

David Gergen:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

I feel like too many people in Washington see themselves as indispensable.

David Gergen:

As indispensable?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah.

David Gergen:

Oh, I think that's right. But as the old saying goes, "The graveyards are full of people who are indispensable."

Ken Harbaugh:

Right. Your observations on leadership I think are probably the most lasting impressions on me, a reader. And I hope on younger readers. This one from Lao Tzu, it's oft-quoted, but bears repeating again. You quote Lao Tzu saying, "A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, he's aim fulfilled, they will say we did it ourselves."

David Gergen:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Let's end with your observations on that.

David Gergen:

Well, I find that there are many people who've given up and are exhausted, and I think are frustrated and don't want to get in the arena. I think that time is more critical now than any time since we've been alive. Again, we're needed more now than ever to preserve our democracy, to strengthen our democracy. We're powerlessly close to the edge. But we're not going to get there if we have sort of people who are yelling at us and screaming at us and trying to bully us into solutions, or come up with these radical notions that seem so threatening to large chunks of our population. We do need people who are going to come forward and are not looking for personal glory. They care a lot about the institutions, our institutions. The people I admire so much are those who are saying you don't have to go to Washington DC to make a difference.

In fact, I tell students today, Ken, unless you've got a terrifically interesting or different kind of job, don't go to Washington to launch your career. Stay in your home state and make a difference there. Work at the state level, or indeed work at the city level. I think that's where the real changes are going to come. They're going to come, yes, for some from the top down, but a lot are going to come from the bottom up and people who sort find themselves working together in a variety of different causes.

I think in particular, if we have a robust program of national service, then we would be greatly aided by that. National service would tell a young person between the ages of 18 and 24, come give a year back to your country, give a year back to your community. If you do that, we'll give you a year off your student debt. And if you give us a couple years, we'll give you a couple years. And if you'd like, if you grew up in rural America, we'll set up a place for you to volunteer and work and urban America so you learn what it's like and get an understanding of why we have so much violence on the streets of urban America? People who live in rural America need to understand what's going on in the cities. And alternatively people who grew up in the cities need to spend some time out in the countryside in rural America, or in the woods or whatever.

This is a big, complex country. If you really want to understand and make a difference, it's important that you do understand the passions of our time and you throw yourself in. I celebrate that quote about the best leaders are the ones who quietly get change made, and then when others wake up, they think they did it themselves. That's fine. The critical thing is to make sure we make that kind of progress.

And so that the quote you just made, one of my favorites, the one I end the book with is from Teddy Roosevelt about the importance of the man, and he would say today and the woman in the arena. And that the place of honor in our society is not among those who sit on the sidelines and carp and criticize and whistle and one thing and another, the real honor belongs to those who get in the arena and give their all to improving the quality of life in this country and making us all proud of what we can be.

We've lost a lot of our self pride. We've lost a lot of our can-do spirit. And I think the next generations bring to the table a freshness. They bring fresh blood. They bring fresh vision. And I think they bring fresh hope. So I'm a big believer in beginning to share responsibility now with the younger generations and doing everything we can to help them prepare themselves for lives of service and leadership.

Ken Harbaugh:

David, thank you so much for your contribution to this conversation. Hearts Touched with Fire, I will link to it in the show notes. It has been great catching up with you.

David Gergen:

Let's do catch up some more, Ken. I enjoyed talking with you so much and you're asking some very, very good questions. I was scratching my head, "What am I going to say to this?" But that was terrific. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks, David.

David Gergen:

Okay. Take care. Bye.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to David for joining me. Make sure to check out his book, Hearts Touched with Fire. The link is in the show description. You can follow David on Twitter @David_Gergen.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected] We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members and their supporters. To learn more, go to votevets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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