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Hearts Touched with Fire
How Great Leaders Are Made
Table of Contents
About The Book
As nations careen from one crisis to the next, there is a growing cry for fresh leadership. Those in charge have relatedly fallen short, and trust in institutions have plummeted. So, what does great leadership look like? And how are great leaders made?
David Gergen, a leader in the public arena for more than half a century, draws from his experiences as a White House adviser to four presidents, his decades as a trusted voice on national issues, and years of teaching and mentoring young people to offer a stirring playbook for the next generation of change-makers.
To uncover the fundamental elements of effective leadership, Gergen traves the journeys of iconic leaders past and present, from pathbreakers like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, John McCain, and Harvey Milk to historic icons like Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, to contemporary game changers like Greta Thunberg, the Parkland students, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Leadership is a journey that starts from within, Gergen writes. A leader must become self-aware and then achieve self-mastery. You cannot lead others until you can lead yourself. As you start to leap into the world, you begin your outer journey, overcoming setbacks, persuading others, empowering them, and navigating crises—armed with a sense of history, humor, passion, and purpose.
By linking lessons of the past with the ever-changing practice of leadership today, Gergen reveals the time-tested secrets of dynamic leadership. A “clarion call for lives dedicated to service and leadership” (Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Leadership), Hearts Touched with Fire distills experience and wisdom of the past into an invaluable guide for leaders of our future.
He could have ducked.
His father was a prominent physician and intellectual, his mother a major abolitionist, his family well connected. So when President Lincoln issued his first call for volunteers in the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. could have easily ignored it.
Instead, he dropped out of Harvard College and signed up as a first lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts, putting his life on the line for the sake of his country. He answered the call. In battles that followed, Confederate bullets struck him down repeatedly—at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. In one battle, he was shot in the chest and barely survived; in another, he was shot in the neck and left for dead.
But as his biographer Mark DeWolfe Howe has written, those grievous wounds did not diminish his life. They instead shaped and strengthened his public leadership for the next seventy years. Even as he witnessed so much death and destruction, his inner steel hardened, and his aspirations for America grew. He rose to become one of the nation’s most influential and eloquent jurists, named to the Supreme Court by Teddy Roosevelt and serving until FDR reached the White House.
Some years after the Civil War, in a speech on Memorial Day in 1884, Holmes described how military service had inspired his generation. “As life is action and passion,” he said, “it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.… Through our great good fortune, in our youth, our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.”
“In our youth, our hearts were touched with fire.”
What a glorious way to capture what so many young men and women have experienced in one era after another in committing themselves to civic life, seeking to create a fairer, more just, and more peaceful world. Life will hold perils, but in devoting yourself to the service of others, you find a satisfaction that transcends your troubles. As many have discovered, service and leadership are inextricably bound together. Indeed, leadership at its best is service to others.
BUT DO LEADERS REALLY MATTER?
In one generation after another, down to our day, we have seen the joy and inner peace that comes to leaders who work tirelessly to serve others. Think of Jane Addams in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating Hull House to serve as many as two thousand women a week; she was the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize. Or the many creations of Albert Schweitzer in the first half of the twentieth century, including the hospital he built in Africa, at Lambaréné. Schweitzer believed that “the purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.”
Think too of the work of Frances Perkins in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, a creative force behind the New Deal. Or Eleanor Roosevelt, who opened doors for scores of women in midcentury and served as the chairperson of the drafting committee of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Or Gandhi, King, Mother Teresa, down to John Lewis and New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern of our own time. All commanded universal respect. As we will see in the pages ahead, the way men and women exercise leadership continues to change—we have, for example, largely discarded the Great Man theory of centuries past in favor of more collaborative and diverse leadership—but the need for leaders of courage, compassion, and character has not only remained essential but has grown exponentially.
For centuries, historians and social scientists have debated whether leaders matter to the unfolding of the human story. Origins of the study of leadership can be found in ancient Greece, Rome, and China. In more modern times, the Western school of thought has been driven by historians, moral and political philosophers, practitioners, and most recently, social scientists. Different scholars bring with them their own approaches: Historians tend to focus on lessons from high-profile leaders from the past, while practitioners apply their own experiences and insights to leadership analysis. In the past several decades, as thinkers like Warren Bennis worked to solidify “leadership” as an academic discipline in its own right, social scientists have increasingly dominated the field of leadership research, applying an objective, “value-free” lens in understanding what constitutes effective—or ineffective—leadership.
Although leadership studies were initially focused on the qualities of leaders, the discipline has taken on explaining increasingly dynamic forces at play between leaders and their followers. How do leaders effectively navigate a world in which their values and culture may not align with those of their followers? What role do followers play in the efficacy of a leader? If a man exercises power in an immoral or evil way, should he still be called a leader? How can one voice seek to empower and advocate for a diverse cross section of interests? As we continue to understand the nuances of human behavior and expand our understanding of who can become “a leader,” questions related to what constitutes good leadership have multiplied.
At the crux of it all, however, is one central question: How great an impact can one person have on the arc of history? As the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. pointed out, many eminent thinkers have believed that individuals are only the pawns of larger forces, such as God’s will, fate, and historical inevitability. In War and Peace, Tolstoy argued that if there had been no Napoleon, a different French general would have invaded Russia, slaughtering all in sight. Individuals, Tolstoy wrote, are but “the slaves of history.” He belonged to what has been called the determinist school of thought—a set of beliefs stretching back to gods and goddesses on Mt. Olympus and stretching forward to Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, and, indeed, Nazism.
In one of my favorite essays, “Democracy and Leadership,” Schlesinger made the counterargument that determinism at its core denies human agency as well as human responsibility. When an individual murders another, we hold him accountable for his act unless he is judged incapable of distinguishing right from wrong; we don’t give him a free pass. We believe each of us is responsible for our own behavior. Each of us has our own agency—for good as well as bad. And so it goes with leadership: Each of us can choose to make a positive difference.
In 1931, Schlesinger wrote, a British politician visiting America crossed Park Avenue in New York City after dinner, looked the wrong way, and was struck down by a passing car. “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell,” he later said. Fourteen months later, an American politician was sitting in an open car in Miami when a gunman fired at point-blank range. Had the gunman’s arm not been jarred by a nearby woman, the politician would have died; as it was, the man next to him perished.
Schlesinger posed this hypothetical: If history had played out differently, that British politician could have died that night in New York. So too could that American politician have succumbed to his bullet wound in Miami. If those two men, Winston Churchill and FDR, had died on those days, would history have been any different? You bet! Every serious person believes that neither Neville Chamberlain nor Lord Halifax—the alternatives to Churchill—could have given voice to the British lion as Churchill did during the war. Similarly, no one believes that Vice President John Nance Garner, the Texan who said his office was “not worth a bucket of warm piss,” could have led us through the Depression and the war as FDR did.
Our greatest leaders have emerged from both good times and, more often, challenging ones. They are those among us who, in our darkest hours, stir us with hope and provide us with a clear vision for the days ahead. Often they remain calm at the helm when facing a crisis; they can right a sinking ship. In a pinch, the very finest among them make the difficult calls, calls that can ultimately alter the course of history. Through courage and character, they motivate others to follow their lead; one single person can inspire the masses to act, to change the world for the better. Individuals still matter, especially in leadership.
ARE LEADERS BORN OR MADE?
Experts disagree whether the qualities and talents of effective leaders are in their DNA. When Dwight Eisenhower was a kid, others automatically looked to him in organizing their touch-football games; he wrote later that teenage teams were his training grounds for leadership. Abraham Lincoln had less than a full year of formal education, but his words still ring true with us a century and a half later. It certainly appears that some people are born gifted—or, as Warren Buffett likes to say about his investment savvy, he was lucky to have won life’s lottery.
You may have been born with some natural advantages, but if you want to excel as a leader—to go “from good to great,” as Jim Collins puts it—you have to work steadily over a long period of time. Frequently, personal development depends heavily upon your own patience and persistence. It is only through first mastering your own intentions, coming to understand your values, and then leading increasingly large groups of followers that one can truly become an effective leader. The journey is not straightforward and is sure to be full of failures large and small, but leading can prove to be one of life’s most meaningful endeavors.
HOW SHOULD WE DEFINE LEADERSHIP?
Students of leadership also argue over how it should be defined. That’s because the practice of leadership draws primarily upon subjective, hard-to-measure qualities like character, compassion, empathy, and the like. It is more art than science. Or as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in a 1960s case, obscenity is hard to define but “I know it when I see it.” Or perhaps you might compare leadership to jazz: The art, as Miles Davis suggested, is how to play the silence between the notes.
Altogether, students of leadership have found over two hundred definitions of leadership. Many of them are similar. A number touch upon the ability to inspire others. Ronald Reagan, for example, thought a great leader is “one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” A slightly different school of thought emphasizes the selfless nature of leaders. Lao-tzu famously said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.” Likewise, Nelson Mandela thought it better to empower others, leading from behind and allowing them to celebrate the fruits of their labor. Others home in upon personal traits, common among them courage, vision, and integrity. Today there is a school of thought emerging around the idea of leaderlessness—a concept that emphasizes collective action and shared roles rather than a single individual guiding the masses. We will return to this subject in pages to come.
The definition that I find most compelling, however, and use in classrooms comes from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author and historian Garry Wills. In a book written a quarter century ago, Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership, he presented biographical sketches of individual leaders, weighing how followers shape their leaders. Sorting out distinctions, Wills offered this definition of a leader: “one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leader and followers.”
Traditionally, scholars have agreed that there are three main elements to leadership: the leader, followers, and context. Each matters. We spend most of our time focusing on leaders and overlooking followers. But as Garry Wills recognizes, the qualities of followers heavily influence the success of leaders. For example, the French Revolution and the American Revolution both sought to strengthen the liberty of their peoples and both occurred at relatively the same time in history. Why, then, did the American Revolution succeed and the French fail? Thomas Jefferson believed that Americans had long experience in self-governance beforehand while the French people had lived under the thumb of the monarchy and the church. Americans were culturally ready for independence; the French were not. A former colleague of mine, Barbara Kellerman, has written a valuable book on followers that I recommend.
Similarly, the context in which a leader finds her- or himself will also shape what that person can get done. In his recent studies of leadership, political scientist Joseph Nye has pointed out that in 1939, Winston Churchill was a washed-up leader. The British public was then clinging to hopes of a negotiated settlement with Germany and saw Churchill as impulsive and militaristic. But within a year, as the Nazis marched across France and threatened to invade Britain, Churchill was seen as a savior. The context had changed, summoning him into action.
I would offer one amendment to the traditional view that leader, followers, and context are the three key pillars of leadership. In my experience in various White Houses, there is always a fourth element: the goals. A leader will be much more successful if she chooses goals that are doable and are aligned with the values and interests of her followers. In the early Reagan years, for example, Reagan’s chief of staff, Jim Baker, distinguished among three types of goals for a president: easy, difficult, and tough but doable. Easy ones, he said, should be left to the departments to secure; difficult ones should be allowed to ripen; tough but doable are the stretch goals we should embrace. That perspective was a key to Reagan’s success. Stretch goals like the massive reform of Social Security and the overhaul of the tax system—both requiring significant bipartisan participation—came to define his presidency. On occasion, other presidents have overstretched and failed. It’s essential to find the right balance if you want to leave a positive legacy.
ENDURING VS. EVOLVING STANDARDS
It is fascinating to look back upon earlier times and to recognize how leadership has evolved over the centuries. A major theme of this book is that the capacity to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape is one of the most important skills a leader needs today. Even Ben Franklin, the most innovative of the founders, might be lost in today’s culture of globalization and digitalization.
Yet as one looks more closely, it seems equally important—perhaps more important—that a leader also embrace standards that have endured for over two thousand years. We know that personal character has been essential to leadership since classical Greece and Rome. The ancients believed, as we do now, that a person’s inner values and strengths were key determinants of their ability to practice principled leadership. Equally essential have been courage and honor. One can read Marcus Aurelius and Plutarch and learn as much about leadership as you can from any text of modern times.
I would be remiss if I failed to address an unshakable notion of leadership in America: that of a man on a white horse, strong and fearless, rescuing his followers from looming disaster. Richard Nixon reportedly watched the movie Patton no less than nine times. He loved the portrayal of a bold leader swearing at his troops on the eve of battle. General MacArthur played to that tradition too, as did Donald Trump in his presidential campaigns.
In truth, when darkness falls across the political landscape, democratic nations often call upon and sometimes need a visibly strong person. Witness the call to Churchill in May 1940. But over the years, scholars have moved away from individual strongmen and toward leaders who are collaborative and welcome partners. Instead of a lonely singular figure brooding over a decision, a favorite depiction of Barack Obama the night bin Laden was captured shows him in the Situation Room surrounded by half a dozen advisors. We will find repeated examples of collaborative leadership in the pages ahead.
Indeed, throughout this book you will find sketches of leaders whose lives shed light on the arts and adventures of leadership. In that spirit, let’s look at three contemporary leaders whose lives underscore the idea that even though standards have evolved, the values we cherish have endured over centuries. What we see is that each leader had to adapt to the context of their times, resorting to different strategies for success. But equally so, we see striking commonalities in the way they thought and acted. Importantly, as leaders, they shared many of the same basic values.
Leadership of Conviction and Humility
In Pike County, Alabama, most people were poor, Black Americans were still picking cotton, and memories of slavery remained fresh almost eight decades after the Emancipation Proclamation. That was the world into which Robert John Lewis was born in 1940. It is hard to imagine that one day, a leading historian of our time, Jon Meacham, would write of that child: “He was as important to the founding of a modern and multiethnic twentieth- and twenty-first-century America as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and Samuel Adams were to the creation of the republic in the eighteenth century.”
The family roots of Robert John Lewis—he took the name John later in life—were sunk deep into Alabama soil. His great-grandfather was a sharecropper, as were his descendants; he had been born into slavery decades before and, despite emancipation, soon found himself a victim of racism and Jim Crow laws and regulations. John grew up pitching in to help his family’s farming efforts. He watched as his mother toiled in the fields only to be paid $1.40 per four hundred pounds of cotton—about two days’ work. In 1944, John’s father had saved up enough money to buy a small plot of land. “Working for somebody else all your days, and then to have a little something you could call your own, it was bound to make you feel good,” John’s mother said. Perhaps in those early moments, John realized the importance of perseverance and just how sweet a little bit of freedom could taste.
When not in the fields, some of John’s fondest childhood memories came from his engagement with Dunn’s Chapel A.M.E. He thought he would become a preacher and took to practicing on his own. Lewis said that when his parents asked him to take care of the family’s livestock, “I literally started preaching to the chickens. They became members of this sort of invisible church or maybe you want to call it a real church.” He sometimes attempted baptisms and conducted funerals for chicks that had died, reading Scripture aloud and delivering a eulogy for those lost. It didn’t always work out so well for the chickens. When he was five or six, a baptism went awry. He feared he had held a chicken too long underwater, drowning it even as he was trying to save its soul. Luckily, the chicken had its own resurrection of sorts and, after a few minutes in the sun, revived and wandered away. Might his experiences have helped John become a better preacher? I imagine so. With those chickens, he honed his powers of persuasion, developed a sense of empathy, and better learned the Scriptures.
John’s other memories were not so rosy. While he loved school, he rode there on segregated, weather-worn buses and saw WHITES ONLY signs posted. He knew that segregation and Jim Crow laws were wrong. Injustices became even clearer one summer when he visited relatives in Upstate New York. There he had freedom to shop alongside white shoppers, ride an escalator, and see neighborhoods filled with people of all backgrounds. He began to understand how oppressive his home state was.
In 1956, as a sixteen-year-old, John began to form his own values. By chance he was sitting by his radio when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a rousing address. In many ways, his remarks reminded Lewis of his own thinking: King proposed to intertwine faith and nonviolent protest to make the world more equitable. “When I heard his voice,” said Lewis, “I felt he was talking directly to me. From that moment on, I decided to be just like him.” John Lewis had found his role model and mentor.
Inspired by the actions of movement leaders around him, Lewis began to hear a call—a call to action. He made his way to Nashville to study at the tuition-free American Baptist Theological Seminary, where he became a disciplined student and increasingly embraced King’s social gospel. At nineteen, he joined a group of peers walking into Harvey’s Department Store in Nashville, where they took seats at a segregated lunch counter. The store’s manager asked them to leave, and they did, but they continued to protest peacefully in Nashville day in and out. That February 1960, they got word that if they continued, they would be met by white mobs and violence. They persisted. Lewis took his seat at Woolworth’s and was immediately heckled, hit in the ribs, and thrown to the floor. Instead of arresting the vigilantes, the police arrested Lewis for “disorderly conduct.” He did not resist but made his way to the paddy wagon singing the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”
The mayor released the protestors from jail, but that did not quell the unrest. News of their efforts began to spread across the country. A twenty-year-old Lewis was increasingly at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Clashes became more frequent as protestors staged a full-fledged boycott of Nashville’s stores and white agitators threw dynamite at the home of an NAACP lawyer. After a five-thousand-person march, the mayor of Nashville conceded and ordered the city’s lunch counters desegregated. Lewis was experiencing his first victory for nonviolence. His bruises, his nights in jail, his exposure of deep-seated racism—those were badges of honor.
The rest of the story is familiar to Americans of the civil rights era. Lewis and a companion had a near-death encounter when a manager locked them in his Nashville restaurant and began to spread toxic insecticide throughout. “I was not eager to die,” Lewis said later, “but I was at peace with the prospect of it.” As demonstrations continued to trigger violent responses, Lewis was arrested and beaten time and again. He became one of the original thirteen Freedom Riders who made their way south to test the staying of two major cases in the Supreme Court.
His accomplishments by the age of twenty-five were stunning. He became the face of a new generation of young leaders who embraced nonviolence and refused to accept systemic racism. In rapid succession, Lewis helped found and then led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); he helped organize and was a final speaker at the famous March on Washington in 1963; the following year, he led the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where his skull was bashed in; and he participated in meetings between civil rights leaders and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson that prompted the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lewis was arrested some forty times—all this before he began a second career as a leader of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served there for thirty-three years.
John Lewis was usually soft-spoken and humble, but he was a leader of conviction. His courage and commitment were unmatched in his generation. For John, as for any great leader, life was devoted to a cause much greater than himself. He was driven not by personal interests or ambitions, but by ambitions for his fellow man. “John would not just follow you into the lions’ den,” said a fellow protestor, “he would lead you into it.” He died a national hero.
Leadership of Grit and Ambition
In the very years when Lewis was solidifying his commitment to nonviolence, a young law student was waging battles of her own. Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not face the bloody protests that Lewis did, but she experienced harsh resistance all her life as she struggled to achieve equal rights for women. Ginsburg was no icon at a young age—like so many other leaders, she seemed destined for obscurity. But like them, she developed a steely determination and an inner will that were a springboard to greatness.
Well before she became a jurist of national acclaim, Ruth Bader was a diligent student in Brooklyn, New York. From a young age, her mother, Celia, had encouraged her daughter to “love learning, care about people, and work hard.” She expected Ruth to attend college and took her to the neighborhood library, where Ruth pored over classics like Little Women and The Secret Garden. Later, when Ruth reached James Madison High School, her intellectual appetite allowed her to succeed in all fields—she was popular and an excellent student, and she belonged to both the orchestra and twirling squad.
Life in the Bader household was not always easy. While she juggled her many commitments, Ruth quietly watched her mother’s losing battle with cervical cancer. After school each day, Ruth would commute an hour on the subway to visit her mother at Beth Moses Hospital and eat dinner before the hour-long return home. Four years after her diagnosis, Celia succumbed to the disease. Her husband was so overcome with grief that he had to shutter the doors of his retail store, and Ruth was left to coordinate a new place for him to live. At the time, she was just seventeen. Though her mother’s illness and death took an emotional toll, she confined her feelings to herself and did not let her academic or extracurricular performance slip. Her mother had long instilled in her the importance of a first-class education, and Ruth wanted to make her proud. That she did. Ruth’s success in managing it all in trying times would be a challenge for any person, let alone a young woman, but she somehow pulled it off, preparing herself for even more trying times ahead.
This grit would become characteristic of Ginsburg as she faced one seemingly insurmountable challenge after the next. Ruth went on to Cornell, where she enrolled as an undergraduate. At that time, men tended to seek an education and women were encouraged to seek a Mrs. degree. Fortunately, Ruth excelled academically and was lucky enough to meet her future husband, Marty. A couple of years later, just as the newlywed Ginsburgs were beginning to start their family, Ruth would follow in her husband’s footsteps and enroll at Harvard Law. As a starting law student—just one of nine women in a class of about five hundred—she had a fourteen-month-old daughter at home along with her beloved Marty, who was a year ahead of her. Amidst the hubbub, leave it to Ruth to make the Law Review.
In her second year at law school, life dramatically worsened when Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer. At the time, chemotherapy was not yet available, so he needed massive doses of radiation. Suddenly Ruth once again faced serious family challenges—but this time as a mother, a wife, and a graduate student. As Marty underwent his treatments, Ruth enlisted classmates and friends to take notes for him while she kept up with her own work. After their daughter went to bed, Ruth stayed at the dinner table through much of the night, studying for her courses while also typing Marty’s third-year paper. Yet again, her abilities seemed almost limitless as she thrived academically—her peers at the Law Review noticed no change in her work, even saying they did not know of her husband’s illness—while she continued to prioritize the health and happiness of her loved ones.
I should note that after studying the lives of many leaders, my students always rank Ruth’s efforts during those dark days as among the most memorable—and most admirable—they have encountered. She has become a constant source of inspiration.
In her third year of law school, Ruth transferred to Columbia to remain close to Marty, who had taken a job in New York. By her graduation when she was twenty-six, she had overcome two harrowing experiences. Her years to come would prove no easier, as she entered a profession still dominated by white males. She finished at the top of her class but did not receive a single job offer. (Sandra Day O’Connor experienced similar discrimination when she graduated at the top of her class at Stanford.) Ginsburg eventually did secure a clerkship with federal judge Edmund L. Palmieri, but not without some backroom pressure by a law school professor. Getting started, she once again proved her impeccable worth ethic and built a strong rapport with the judge. Speaking of her time spent in the clerkship, Ginsburg said she “stayed late sometimes when it was necessary, sometimes when it wasn’t necessary, came in Saturdays, and brought work home.”
At each new turn of her career, Ginsburg approached her work with a commitment to excellence. After her time clerking, the director of Columbia Law School’s Project on International Procedure asked her to become a research associate on a book about the Swedish legal system. Not only did she tackle the work head on, learning Swedish at a rapid pace, but she was also promoted. Her boss later said of the judge, “Ruth is basically a reserved person, quiet but with a steely determination. When she sets her mind to do something, she does it and superbly.”
A few years later, as one of two female law professors at Rutgers, she had her second child without missing a beat at work. Indeed, she hid her pregnancy until the last minute and quickly returned from maternity leave, resuming a full-time schedule. Meanwhile, her father-in-law had an auto accident and moved into the Ginsburg household. Ruth became exhausted but again persevered. Had she not had that inner fortitude, it is doubtful the world would have ever heard of her.
All this happened before Ginsburg had begun her rise to leadership in the legal profession, especially in advancing the rights of women. She was a co-founder of the ACLU’S Women’s Rights Project, in many ways rivaling the key leadership role that Thurgood Marshall had played in the NAACP on behalf of civil rights for Black Americans. Soon enough she was appointed to a judgeship at the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. and then was offered a seat on the Supreme Court by President Clinton. I was working for the president in the White House at the time and remember well how many distinguished men and women rallied to her appointment; Clinton himself was immensely impressed. Her long years spent leading the country toward full rights for women were key to that appointment, giving her a platform to move a nation. She first transformed herself and then began to transform the country.
Ginsburg’s presence on the Supreme Court continued to solidify the place of women in the legal profession. However, it would be her actions on the Court that would cement her place in American history as a true champion of equality and human dignity. Her record on the Court includes precedent-setting decisions regarding equal opportunity, access to reproductive care, and fierce dissents on any challenges to a woman’s right to choose. In her confirmation hearing she famously stated, “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity…When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”
Labeled the “high Court’s counterweight” by her friend and conservative colleague the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg was not afraid to dissent when recognizing an injustice. Though the minority opinion, these words of dissent were as impactful as any decision. For example, she fervently dissented against the majority in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire (2007), in which an Alabama woman sued for back pay to account for the years of wage discrimination she faced as her male colleagues were paid significantly more for performing the same job. Though the lawsuit in front of the Supreme Court was unsuccessful, Ginsburg’s words of dissent were recognized by the U.S. Congress through legislation known as the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
Indeed, while serving as a Supreme Court justice until her death in 2020, Ginsburg was a pillar of the Court’s liberal block, protecting the rights of women, defending affirmative action and equal voting rights, and chipping away at legal barriers to equality. In fact, even before her time as a federal judge, Ginsburg had famously argued in front of the Supreme Court that gender discrimination hurts not only women but men as well: In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), she asked the Court to strike down a Social Security provision that deprived widowers of survivor benefits after the death of their spouse. Her accomplishments in the realm of equal rights feel endless, and it is certain her impact on society will be. Overall, Ginsburg’s rise above gender discrimination and her work in front of and on the bench, as she strove tirelessly toward a more equitable future, demonstrate leadership of true grit and ambition.
Leadership of Character and Honor
Reflecting upon the past few decades in American politics is a dispiriting exercise. Not since the Civil War have our elected officials been so deeply divided, our populace split in blind loyalty along partisan lines, often unwilling to acknowledge the opponent on the other side. What began at the turn of the twenty-first century as infrequent cooperation has culminated in a landscape where many of our public officials are willing to sacrifice their own ideals—and those of their country—for the sake of party or ideology.
While the atmosphere was one of increasing viciousness, one man emerged who was widely respected by both sides. He was lauded by staunch conservatives and progressive liberals for his character and commitment to country. That man, of course, was John Sidney McCain III.
John was born at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone into a family with deep ties to the military: His father, John Jr., was a lieutenant at the time, and his grandfather John “Slew” was a four-star admiral in the navy. The McCain we have come to cherish in our national memory—the Vietnam POW who suffered harrowing captivity, returning home to honorably serve in the U.S. House and Senate until the day he died—might seem the natural descendant of two lifelong military heroes. One can imagine that a young McCain, groomed well and inspired by his elders, fell quickly into line, making all the appropriate preparations one should in his years leading up to service.
Reality, as it turns out, departed sharply from this idealistic image. Young McCain was no teacher’s pet. In school, he often lacked motivation. At Episcopal High School, he was known to occasionally pick a fight or make an illicit excursion into neighboring Washington, D.C. Despite his schoolboy outbursts, McCain took one matter extremely seriously: honor. When he played football, one of the members of the team had refused to sign a training pledge and then proceeded to miss practice. His mates wanted to kick him off the team, but McCain stood up and told them the boy had done nothing wrong. Ever an independent spirit, McCain made it clear that the boy had never signed the pledge and had therefore never broken his promise to the team. I guess he was already a talented speaker, because his coach ended up listening to him and didn’t punish the other boy.
As he made his way through life, McCain left behind a stream of mischief and troublemaking. His rebellious nature followed him to the Naval Academy. There, he accrued so many demerits that his classmates wondered if he might be expelled. Instead, he served his time, once joking that he had marched enough extra duty on weekends to have walked “to Baltimore and back many times.” But he graduated by the skin of his teeth in 1958, ranked fifth from the bottom of his 899-person class.
Just nine years later, America found itself in the throes of conflict with North Vietnam, and McCain shipped off for duty flying A-4 Skyhawks. Months into combat duty, he experienced a moment that would forever shape his life. He was shot down over Hanoi and forced to eject himself from his jet, breaking both arms and a leg in the process. Upon landing, he was swarmed by a group of North Vietnamese, who pulled him from a lake, bayoneted him in the groin, smashed a rifle butt against his shoulders, and took him back to the Hoa Lo Prison—more commonly referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton.” He was left largely untreated, floating in and out of consciousness as his weight dropped to almost a hundred pounds; his fellow POWs did not think he would make it.
Several months into his captivity, the North Vietnamese realized he was the son of a four-star admiral in charge of the Pacific Fleet. The Viet Cong decided to offer him release; despite months on the brink of death, McCain refused. He would not violate the Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War, which said POWs ought to be released in the order in which they were captured. Shortly thereafter, his captors—angered by his refusal to be released—beat and tortured him for four straight days. On the fourth, he broke, making a false confession that he was a “black criminal” and an “air pirate.” The days following were sheer emotional torture for him, full of guilt. He later wrote: “I felt faithless, and couldn’t control my despair… All my pride was lost.” McCain’s fellow POWs knew his confession held no real ramifications; decades later, when the tapes were released, many POWs defended McCain from those who disparaged his faithful service, emphasizing the great sacrifices he made for his fellow countrymen.
Finally, in 1973, McCain was released along with his American compatriots—in the order which they had been captured. He returned home carrying the pain of a five-and-a-half-year imprisonment; Americans captured in Vietnam suffered the longest bouts of imprisonment of any POWs in our history. Even so, McCain’s independent streak, honor, and inner fire remained intact. He was only thirty-seven years old when he set foot on American soil again, ready to launch his next chapter of public service.
McCain’s political rise is a familiar tale. The young veteran began his political exposure as a naval liaison to the Senate, where he built lasting friendships with young senators from both sides of the aisle. When he failed a flight physical in 1980, he officially retired from the navy, running for, and winning, his first congressional seat shortly thereafter and then moving on to represent Arizona in the Senate. He got into legal trouble during the savings and loan scandal of the mid-1980s; he was accused, alongside four other senators, of interfering in a federal banking regulations investigation on behalf of Charles Keating, a longtime friend and campaign donor. McCain, however, quickly acknowledged and accepted responsibility for his mistakes. Voters largely forgave him. Though he often became the voice of his party—culminating in his 2008 Republican nomination for the presidency—McCain maintained his honor and integrity in office, bowing only to his own beliefs and commitment to country.
As Michael Lewis pointed out in “The Subversive,” McCain paid little heed to D.C. norms or political posturing. Once, when serving as chairman of the Commerce Committee, McCain had to leave a hearing early. He whispered something in the ear of Democrat Ernest Hollings and gave him the gavel. Hollings said to McCain, “John, I’d be delighted to take it, but some of your colleagues might object,” to which McCain replied, “Screw that.” He treated his colleagues across the aisle just as he would his closest allies. His legislative record showed the same: He was a pioneer in passing bipartisan campaign finance reform, demanded humane treatment of prisoners, and, most memorably, vetoed the Republican “repeal and replace” of Obamacare in the late hours of the night—one of his parting acts of independence.
At his core, John McCain was a man of honor, honesty, and decency. He certainly had a rebellious side, and coming home from Vietnam, he was no plastic saint. But he always tried to remain true to himself and to his word. He was also the first to admit to his mistakes and missteps: During his 2000 presidential campaign, he refused to condemn the flying of a Confederate flag in South Carolina but, upon reflection, returned to the state to apologize. Notably, when a woman at one of his 2008 rallies loudly criticized Obama as an “Arab,” McCain interceded to tell her she was wrong. Most important, he was a man of his word and of his promises. From those days on the high school football team to the Hanoi Hilton to his vote to keep millions on their health insurance, McCain stuck to his guns and brought honor to those he served. He died an American hero, not for his politics, but for his unwavering character and candor in public life—old-fashioned values that have proved to be still relevant to leaders today.
WHERE JOURNEYS INTERSECT
Lewis, Ginsburg, and McCain come to us from all walks of life—different upbringings, politics, backgrounds, and goals. Yet we can also see commonalities among them that defined their coming-of-age years and prepared them for lives of service and leadership. It is these commonalities that we find time and again as we explore the development of young leaders. Among those that stand out here:
Each Felt Called to the Public Arena
McCain, born to a family with a storied military past, understood what it meant to give himself to his nation and its ideals. He followed his twenty-three years in the navy with a different kind of service: thirty-six years in the U.S. Congress. Lewis was appalled by the oppression of his kinfolk in this country; when his activist work waned, he too took up a second career in the House of Representatives. As Ginsburg launched herself into a profession dominated by men, she came to understand just how critical it was for genders to be treated equally. Each of these leaders stopped asking what they wanted from life and began asking what life wanted from them.
Their Journeys into Leadership Began Early
Though still learning self-discipline, McCain in his early twenties became an informal leader of his Naval Academy class when he stood up for them against upperclassman bullies. He was unafraid to confront those with more power than he had. Lewis was only nineteen when he began organizing sit-ins in Nashville. At age thirty, Ginsburg was beginning her career as one of the first female law professors at Rutgers. Though each continued to grow as the years passed, all three showed leadership promise in early adulthood that would come to define them later in life.
Each Had to Summon Inner Courage
The journey of each was adventurous—and sometimes even quite dangerous. Lewis was frequently beaten up and was lucky to survive his encounter on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. After McCain was shot down over Vietnam, he endured years of pain, suffering, and torture in the Hanoi Hilton. Ginsburg, though she did not face physical danger, held her head high as she entered a world in which women had no place.
Each Stumbled but Came Back Stronger
Lewis was knocked down early but refused to change course and eventually prevailed. Ginsburg, despite graduating at the top of her class, struggled to secure a single job offer after completing Columbia Law School. McCain, early in his naval career, established a reputation for recklessness and partying, but he eventually became a role model for the young.
Each Began Sorting Out and Embracing Core Values Early On
All three were defined by more than their successes in the field. They were recognized by the values they came to embody: Lewis for his dedication to cause and humility, a soft-spoken approach that disguised his inner steel; Ginsburg for her ambition and perseverance in the face of repeated obstacles; McCain for his unwavering decency and candor. Leaders often start with an excess of narcissism, but what separates the good from the bad is that the good acquire a deep, abiding loyalty to their team, their community, and their mission. Lewis, Ginsburg, and McCain all embraced that sense of ambition for others.
Each Found a True North
Through their struggles, each of these leaders not only sorted out their values but discovered an internal moral compass that helped them navigate hard, complex choices, remaining true to their values and their followers. From the day he stood up for his fellow football teammate, McCain would be bound by his honor and unwilling to bend to the interests of those around him. Lewis kept his eye on his North Star for over half a century. Ginsburg, from her early days at the ACLU through her final hours on the Supreme Court, remained a fierce supporter of women’s rights.
They Were All Idealists to Their Core
A person who wants to spend a lifetime giving back to others needs a serious dose of idealism to stay the course. In the case of these three leaders, all had these virtues in abundance. All expanded their horizons and brought devoted followers with them. Their commitment was not to self but to a higher truth. And no matter how harsh reality became, they stayed the course, unwilling to sacrifice their fundamental values and vision. John Lewis said of the battle for equal rights, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.” In their own ways, McCain and Ginsburg also lived by that ideal. They never gave up the fight.
More broadly, the experiences of these three contemporary leaders help to underscore key themes of this book. All three found different roads to leadership, but as they grew older, their inner and outer journeys began to converge. The process of becoming a leader, as Bennis has stressed, is indeed much like that of becoming a full person. They discovered as well that the ways leadership is practiced are rapidly changing, and to navigate the shoals, one had best steer by a moral compass. All three also suffered through unrelenting struggles as they came of age. Yet as they looked back, they realized, as did Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. two decades after the Civil War, “Through our great good fortune, in our youth, our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.”
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 2, 2023)
- Length: 320 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982170585
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Raves and Reviews
“[A] fascinating, multilayered book. . . . inspiring and useful . . . Few books have so much to offer readers contemplating whether to enter the arena. We should hope they heed Gergen’s compelling call to action.”—The Washington Post
“The same ol’ same ol’ is no way forward. Thanks to Gergen, the seed has been planted. The question is whether his contemporaries can embrace their highest purpose — to ensure that the next generation has the skills and tools to lead the country toward a more-perfect union.”—The Washington Post
“A clarion call for lives dedicated to service and leadership, offering sage lessons and a unique perspective borne of Gergen’s own heralded half-century career in the public arena. Now is the moment for this vital and compelling work.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of Leadership: In Turbulent Times
“Blending passion and wisdom, David Gergen delivers an inspired call and practical guide—a written form of mentorship—for those with decades of life in leadership yet to give.”—Jim Collins, author Good to Great, co-author of Built to Last
“A must read for any American, young or old, who wants our country to live up to its promise. Hearts Touched With Fire is an honest, heartening owner’s manual, one that can shape fresh leaders to guide this experiment we call America. For those who wish to lead the change and restore confidence in America, this invaluable book is the roadmap.”—General Jim Mattis, U.S. Marines (ret.) & 26th Secretary of Defense
“Hearts Touched With Fire shows how young Americans are continuing the legacy of working together to create a better future for all. A powerful reminder of the necessity of hope in times like these.”—David Hogg, gun violence prevention activist and co-founder of March for Our Lives
“David Gergen speaks directly and lovingly to a rising generation of diverse new leaders. Hearts Touched With Fire not only asks young people to commit to lives of service and leadership but provides them with the tools and guidance to do so. Beautifully rendered and full of optimism, this is a book we need now, one that will buoy the soul and should catalyze us all to action.”—Cheryl L. Dorsey, President, Echoing Green
“David Gergen knows power, and he understands leadership. From his unique vantage point as an advisor to presidents of both parties—something nearly unimaginable today—he has gleaned a lifetime of lessons about how to inspire and to instruct. Hearts Touched With Fire is an invaluable guide to making things—good things—happen.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of His Truth is Marching On
“With customary eloquence and wit, David Gergen offers us invaluable insights from his decades of observing, researching, teaching and practicing leadership. His book is an indispensable contribution to our understanding of how to create the ethical and effective leaders we so badly need.”—Drew Faust, President Emerita of Harvard University and the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor
“A wonderful leadership manual drawing on dozens of insights and anecdotes from David Gergen’s decades-long career. Hearts Touched With Fire provides us with a moral compass, showing how we can find our True North and stay the course. An essential read.”—Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum
“David Gergen has studied leadership for decades — as a White House adviser and as an educator — and has now written a masterpiece on the subject. I highly recommend this book for all who care about leadership in decades ahead.”—David Rubenstein, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of The Carlyle Group, New York Times Bestselling author of How To Lead and The American Experiment
“A must-read for everyone who aspires to achieve a worthy mission, especially the young men and women, the world over, who are now beginning to make their impact felt and known.”— Nancy Koehn, Historian and James E. Robison chair of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, author of Forged in Crisis
“Hearts Touched With Fire shows how young Americans are continuing the legacy of working together to create a better future for all. A powerful reminder of the necessity of hope in times like these.”—David Hogg, gun violence prevention activist and co-founder of March for Our Lives
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