Gergen's visit centers
on leaders, leadership

 

David Gergen appeared live at the School of Communications in more ways than one during the first two weeks of Winter Term.

The former presidential adviser, well-known political analyst, author and newsman was on campus for the third time in recent years after being appointed to be the first Isabella Cannon Leadership Fellow at Elon University. The public events conducted during his stay included three major lectures, Jan. 6, 12 and 14. All were riviting and inspirational. But the busy Gergen reached out to Elon students in a much more personal way in dozens of smaller, unbilled encounters spread throughout Elon's academic divisions. He also conducted national television interviews carried by satellite uplinks from McEwen's Studio A.

Because his base of operations was the School of Communications, Gergen was often seen in the hallways of McEwen and in its main office. He was a guest speaker in Dr. David Copeland's Globalization, Culture and Media class, Dr. Brooke Barnett's Media Law & Ethics class and Dr. Brad Hamms' Fellows section of Elon's Media Writing class, where his visit was sponsored by SPJ and Pendulum students.

Responsibilities of communicators
In his meeting with SPJ, Pendulum and Fellows students, Gergen spoke about media professionals' responsibilities. "There are two or three ways communicators effect the quality of our a democracy," he said. "First, is how they report the news. Does it give people a true picture of what's going on? How they report it has a huge effect on what we know, what we believe. How well you keep us enlightened is fundamental to democracy. We hold institutions and officials accountable through the press.

"A second thing you (communicators) do is entertain. You set the tone for the culture. It can be partisan, bitter, empty or violent or it can be strong, ennobling and provocative. People in communications shape our culture. Will it be a culture that lifts or a culture that degrades?

"(Third,) you give meaning to what's happening. Should we be grateful for what is unfolding in the world or should we be angry? You determine how people might think."

Gergen said communicators have the opportunity to do a lot of public good. He said a key lapse in the way the media serves democracy today is its navel-gazing. "The big problem in American news right now is it only tells us the news from an American perspective," he explained. "We only constitute about 5 percent of the world's population, and our journalism is not doing enough to tell us about the other 95 percent."

Don't trust the media
He expanded on this point in Copeland's Globalization class, where he said, "We need to know much more about each other than we do, and the media is not set up to do that well. And one of the reasons they aren't is because Americans won't watch it or read it. They won't buy it. Get out in the world and travel and look for yourself. Don't trust the media to give you all the information you need about what's going on in the world ...

"The people of other nations need to know more about us than we need to know about them because we are so powerful. The universal language is increasingly English ... The influence of American culture has become universal - all of that brings a distorted picture of America to the world. For a lot of the world, what's going on in America is eventually going to come to them, and it frightens many of them. They are far more conservative... We're finding out that some people hate us or resent us. Globalization is seen as an increase in trade in which the U.S. is getting rich and altering their societies. They see it as Americanization. They love us and hate us for it. They like the jeans, the music, but they feel they're losing their independence and identity."

Interviews in Studio A
Often in demand on cable television news-talk programs, Gergen found himself giving satellite-uplink interviews from the Elon campus Jan. 12 for CNBC and CNN shows. Both interviews originated in TV Studio A in the McEwen Communications building.

Gergen had to work fast to fit the interviews in: At 6:15 p.m. Monday the 12th, he taped an interview with Brian Williams' CNBC show which aired a bit later in the evening. CNBC sent a microwave truck from Charlotte to send the satellite signal. At 7 p.m. he delivered the second of his three public lectures on leadership. He was a guest of honor at a dinner that followed. At 10 p.m., Gergen appeared live on CNN's "Newsnight with Aaron Brown." A CNN live truck from Richmond, Va., handled the technical aspects of the live feed.

In each interview, Elon was mentioned, and Linda Lashendock, coordinator of television services and a veteran of CNN herself, reported that both network crews were impressed with Elon's facilities. "They each said our new set and the capabilities of our studio made their jobs easier," Lashendock said.

A leader talks about leadership
Gergen focused the first of his three public lectures on the inner qualities of a great leader. He said these are amibition, the capacity to learn and grow, and character.

He focused his second lecture on what he termed "the outer journey," what leaders need to do in their relationships with others. He identified the three qualities leaders must cultivate on their outer journey as emotional intelligence, a record of accomplishment and service to others. "It's important to spend time when you're young paying your dues," Gergen said. "Learn how to follow, then you can lead."

He added that finding a mentor and assuming posts where there is responsibility for leading others are also crucial to building leadership skills. "There's always someone older who is willing to extend a helping hand if you ask in the right way," he said. Gergen said leaders must develop a moral compass, "something to guide you through the difficult questions you will face. The moral compass will help you deal with adversity, because adversity will come your way. It will serve you so well when you get lost, and you will get lost and you will make mistakes, because we all do."

In his final Winter Term lecture, Gergen said assuming a leadership position invites personal struggle. "If you wish to pursue a life of leadership, you won't be walking on rose petals," he said. "As they say in politics, leadership is a contact sport."

Political leadership now brings with it a great deal of personal accountability to the American public through the press. Gergen said said our democracy requires a vigilant press corps to serve as a watchdog, but "the problem in recent years is that the watchdog has become vicious." He said many people are scared away from political service because no one is perfect and attacks in the media take a terrible toll on their families. "Public service has become especially painful for newcomers, for young people who are being torn apart and don't understand what's happening to them," he said.

Gergen told students developing a thick skin and understanding how adversity can shape people are important characteristics for leaders. "My experience is that crises usually make or break people," he said. "Sometimes, the people you might least expect show calm and courage. They are natural leaders."

He encouraged students to develop their leadership skills and pursue positions that require them. "Leadership holds many pitfalls, and you might be asking why get involved at all," Gergen said. "We need you young people to stay off the sidelines and be out on the field, advancing the cause of leadership."

Gergen serves as professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is editor-at-large at U.S. News and World Report magazine, hosts "The World at Large with David Gergen" and appears regularly as an analyst on ABC's "Nightline." He is a former editor of U.S. News & World Report magazine where helped to guide the publication to record gains in circulation and advertising. He became an editor-at-large for U.S. News in 1988. He was adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton and chronicled those experiences in the book "Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton."

A native of Durham, N.C., Gergen has shared his knowledge with Elon students before. In January 2001, he served as a panelist for a symposium titled "The First 100 Days of the 21st Century Presidency," along with journalist Sander Vanocur and historians Michael Beschloss and William Leuchtenburg. In April 2003, Gergen interviewed legendary broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite before an audience of 2,900 in Koury Center.

 

 

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Last Modified:  1/16/03
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