Thoughts on life, leadership and the movement called the church by Brian C. Hughes, Senior Pastor

by Brian C. Hughes, Senior Pastor

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Eyewitness to Power

At the Leadership Summit last month, one of the speakers was David Gergen, who worked in four different White Houses - Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. I was fascinated by his discussion about the leadership highlights and some of the flaws of each of the Presidents with whom he had worked. As someone who is fascinated by the Presidency anyway, I got his book Eyewitness to Power that day. Considering that his specialty was communications and speech writing, you can imagine that his book is exceedingly well written. Not only did I find it helpful for gaining leadership insights, it was frankly one of the most entertaining works of non-fiction I've ever read. To be honest, I could hardly put it down. I found Gergen to be fair, self-reflective, humble, and aware of his own bias. These and other factors make this book a rarity, and I strongly recommend it.

Here are some other highlights from the Nixon and Ford sections, and I might write more about the Reagan and Clinton chapters later:
  • Nixon lost his first bid for the Presidency to Kennedy in 1960 and spent 8 years sort of 'wandering' before winning the 1968 election. Gergen writes, "...the Nixon story does underscore an important lesson: years in the wilderness may appear to be a sure path to oblivion, but, if seized upon as an opportunity for personal growth, can actually become a springboard to serious leadership." (p.38)
  • "It is surprising that few politicians appreciate how much a capacity to speak knowledgeably from history can enhance the stature of a leader." (p43)
  • "'The first act of a leader is to define reality' Max Dupree has written. 'The last is to say thank you.'" (p. 50)
  • "Far more than any president I have known since, Nixon thought that a role of a leader is to train his own team." (p.55)
  • "[Nixon's] quality that I most admire...was his capacity to look out from the mountaintop, foresee the trend lines of the world's future, and bend history to serve American interests...Leaders are often those who see fresh, historic opportunities and seize them, even at the expense of their own consistency." (p.56-59)
  • Gergen has an extensive conversation about Nixon's downfall, including the internal battle that he saw with the President. He concludes this way: "Ultimately, his dark side did him in. Nixon's downfall was living proof of a cardinal rule: leadership starts from within....But the mark of an effective leader is one who absorbs the punishment without surrendering his soul." (p. 78-81)
  • I found the discussion of President Ford's pardon of Nixon to be one of the most enlightening leadership lessons ever. Gergen effectively argues that Ford was right do issue the pardon - that it was the only choice he had. He gives good reason to believe that it was right for the nation and for his own leadership. But he shows that the communication and process was poor enough to cost him the trust of the people. In my own words, Gergen helped me to see that there are 3 dimensions to good decisions. Previously, I thought that you needed to do the right thing for the right reason. Now I see that a great leader needs to do the right thing for the right reason in the right way in order to reach maximum effectiveness. (or cause minimal harm).
That's enough to digest for the moment. Again, I might write more about Reagan and Clinton later.


Beth said...

Excellent review. I want to read that book.

Anonymous said...


I like the fact that you are a man of God's Word and that you also study and take in things like this book. Understanding what others mistakes and successes can teach us is a sign that you are humbel, teachable and desireable to learn and be well grounded.

Seeing with our eyes we see the here and now....a good leader see with his heart and that's called Vision. I am so glad you are a man of Vision and that you are smart enough and wise enough to know where your Vision comes from.

Thanks for taking the time to share with us about the things you read and how they help you grow!