Author Talks: It’s time to pass the baton

To solve decades-old issues, former presidential adviser David Gergen says we need fresh leadership—so he wrote a playbook to guide the next generation of problem-solvers.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with David Gergen, CNN senior analyst and founding director of the Harvard Center for Public Leadership, about his new book, Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders are Made (Simon & Schuster, May 2022). As the world faces war, climate change, and socioeconomic crises, Gergen urges his Baby Boom generation to take a backseat while rising young leaders in business and public service take up the mantle. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Fresh energy, fresh leadership

Why is there an urgent need for new leaders in America?

When I was first thinking about writing a book five to eight years ago, the world seemed a much safer place. I was complacent, but we were doing pretty well back then. As I began to write the book, things began to fall apart, not only in our country but in the world.

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We had these rising threats to democracy in the United States and many other countries, and I think, frankly, that the Baby Boom population—which has been running the country for a long time here in the United States—has not performed as well as one might have hoped. There have been many disappointments.

There are some fine people in the Baby Boom generation, but they left behind a country that is suffering badly from not just the pandemic, but from what’s been going on with the economy, the racial inequities, and the climate issues. Now, there is also the crisis in Ukraine, and the growing sense that China is a threat to the United States—which I think we over-exaggerate—but there have been so many things that have left us uncertain about the future.

I thought it was important, first of all, to challenge the younger generations to get into the arena—to join the fight and stay in the fight because it’s going to be a struggle in the years to come to right all these wrongs. What I see in the younger generations is real promise—they strike me as people who could have been World War II veterans. They have a steel in them, they have an inner discipline, and they care greatly about the country. I wanted to have a voice in trying to encourage more young people to get into the arena and to help us out of this mess.

What I see in the younger generations is real promise—they strike me as people who could have been World War II veterans. They have a steel in them, they have an inner discipline, and they care greatly about the country. I wanted to have a voice in trying to encourage more young people to get into the arena and to help us out of this mess.

What did the Baby Boom generation get wrong?

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I think that the Baby Boom generation, if I may say so, did not have as much grit. I count myself among those responsible for what we’re going through, and those who regret where we are. I just didn’t find that we hung in there. As former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, we borrowed a trillion dollars and had a great party. And yet, what have we gotten for all the efforts of the Baby Boom population?

We’re in a situation where the Baby Boom population is leaving behind a country in real trouble. The World War II generation, by contrast—the generation I greatly respect, a generation that introduced me to Washington and to leadership—left behind an America that was the strongest country since the days of Ancient Rome militarily, economically, and culturally.

We were in great shape, but we’ve slipped from that, and we ought to recognize it. We ought to call it out for what it is, and we need to prepare the leaders of the future—people who are going to return this country to a better place.

I think it’s time for the older generation to step aside and pass the baton to the new generation. I’m included among that. Those of us who are older can still be helpful, we can still support people who are younger, we can still offer counsel if it’s requested, we can still do things at the community level, but we need fresh energy in this country. We need fresh leadership, and that has to come, not just at the community level, but at the national level as well. I think we can do it. I think we’re capable of doing that, but we have to get on with it.

I think it’s time for the older generation to step aside and pass the baton to the new generation. I’m included among that. Those of us who are older can still be helpful, we can still support people who are younger, we can still offer counsel if it’s requested, we can still do things at the community level, but we need fresh energy in this country.

Has it become more difficult to be a leader?

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I think that it’s easier to get to the top these days because of social media. Look at A.O.C. [Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], the young woman who basically came out of nowhere onto the national scene. She was a master of social media. She handled it very, very well, and I have a lot of respect for what she did. I think it shows that, if you really work at it, you can get to the top very quickly. She became a national figure.

The hard thing is to actually exercise power when you get to the top—to actually get things done. That’s perilous because we’re so divided as a country. There are so many barriers in the way of progress that it’s hard to be a good leader. It’s very, very hard. It’s easy to become a leader, hard to be a good leader, and very easy to slip off the pedestal—one mistake and you can get creamed in this society, held up as being this awful person. They take one aspect of your life and dramatize it.

People love to tear down. It’s almost like playing King of the Mountain, a game where you want to get to the top of a mound to be king of the mountain, and somebody else wants to pull you down right away. That’s sort of how our political and public life is these days.

People love to tear down. It’s almost like playing King of the Mountain, a game where you want to get to the top of a mound to be king of the mountain, and somebody else wants to pull you down right away. That’s sort of how our political and public life is these days.

What it takes to lead

You say leadership requires a hard head and a soft heart. Why?

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Both things are important. You do need someone who’s tough. I found with presidents, for example, if you’re into international negotiations with an adversary, you want to be very respectful. You want to make some progress, but you also want that adversary to know that if you don’t make progress, or if they try to screw you over in one way or another, you have a club in the closet. Keep that club in the closet, use it only in the last resort, but you better have a club because people will have a lot more respect for you and will listen to you when you do that.

It also happens that, increasingly, to be effective you need a strong sense of empathy toward the people you’re dealing with. You need to see the world as they see it—what it is like to walk in their moccasins, so to speak. An an important element of leadership today is to understand the little guy, to understand the women who’ve been discriminated against, to understand the people of color who’ve been discriminated against, and to join them in trying to make their lives better. True leaders today have that combination of hardheadedness and a soft heart.

What does self-reflection have to do with leadership?

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You have to start your leadership journey with a better sense of who you are through self-understanding. That means you have to come to grips with not just your strengths but with your weaknesses, and try to develop the strengths, if you can. Let’s say you’ve got a choice: You’re starting out at the bottom, you’re just getting started on your leadership development, and you’re not very strong yet—what should you focus on, the areas where you don’t have skill, or the areas where you have some skill and the capacity to get really good?

Do you want to go from good to mediocre, or do you want to go from good to great? That’s a phrase that Jim Collins developed. Companies don’t need you if you’re simply going to be good. They’re looking for people who are extremely bright and talented in a particular way. You have to have particular skills that take a long time to develop.

If you look at The Beatles, they went off to Germany and used to perform in all sorts of cafes there. It’s estimated that before they finished—before they came back to England as the stars they came back to be—they had spent about 10,000 hours preparing their capacity, working together, playing together, and getting better together. They went from good to great.

That’s what we mean by having knowledge of yourself, but the second part of that, building on self-knowledge, is self-mastery. If you have those two things together, the chances are you’ll do very, very well in whatever field you introduce yourself to.

On the shoulders of tomorrow’s leaders

What gives you hope about the future of America?

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What I have found in the younger generations is a grit and an idealism that I think is rare. I associate them a lot with the World War II generation, which was the most effective we’ve had in recent times. There are a lot of people who are young now who remind me of World War II veterans, especially those people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, in the U.S. military. They learned hard discipline.

I’ve worked with the veterans coming back, and I spent a lot of time trying to help them get elected on both sides of the aisle. I find they’re very appealing—people whom I think can change the world. One of the big issues is there are just not enough of them, which is one of the reasons we ought to be looking at the creation of a new national service program.

We would encourage every young person between the ages of 18 to 24 to spend at least a year giving back to the community by working in a soup kitchen, working for a hospital, working in a place of worship, or any other place where you can give back to your community. This, I think, is one of the great avenues forward.

Our hopes for rebuilding this country rest very heavily, in my judgment, upon the quality, the idealism, and the growth of these younger generations. There are a lot of young people out there who are terrific, but there are not enough. If we have national service, we can have 150,000 to 200,000 or more young people spend a year helping their communities, helping rebuild America. That will be terrific.

By the way, if you go to college and then do this, the idea behind national service is that for every year you give to your community, you get one year off on your college debt. These debts weigh people down. If you have a lot of debt, it’s really, really hard to be in service to the country, but if you’ve helped to solve that problem, you can do wonders.

What role can business leaders play in public service?

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I’m encouraged that the business community is stepping up on these issues more than it has in the past. The Business Roundtable in particular, with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and others, has really committed to not just shareholder prosperity, but to stakeholder prosperity, meaning corporations are trying to serve a bigger community, not just their own profit. They’re trying to help build a bigger community.

There’s a group of CEOs that has committed to, over the next ten years, creating a million jobs per year for people of color, especially Black people. That is exactly the kind of help that is going to be so helpful to liberating young people who don’t have many chances in life. We ought to be building up those kinds of things.

What is the meaning behind the book’s title?

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I love the title, Hearts Touched with Fire. Now, where did that come from? It came from a man named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. His father was a very prominent physician in the Boston area, and this was a family that had access to money, so as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. grew up, he was in a very, very strong position socially and economically.

Then, along came the Civil War. Many rich kids and people of privilege ducked the Civil War. They paid somebody else to go fight for them. Oliver Wendell Holmes refused to do that. Instead, he volunteered, and off he went to war.

During the Civil War, he was grievously wounded on three different occasions, on the last of which he was left for dead on the battlefield. People thought they would never see him again, including his dad, who came searching for him. Miraculously, he not only lived but he went on to have a very, very active life and do a lot of things for the country.

About 20 years after the Civil War, he gave a speech which was long remembered thereafter. He gave a speech to an audience about what it was like to be fighting on the Union side in the war in his generation. Holmes, in his speech, argued, “Every young person should share in the passions of their generation, to be there for it—for the big fights, for the big things that are going on.”

He went on to say, “Our generation—my generation—was blessed. We had hearts touched with fire. That’s the way a young person should look at service to the country.” I love that quote.

Watch the full interview

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David Gergen on how we need fresh leadership and it's time to pass the baton

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