Gergen shares views on leadership during first Bryan Series lecture

Former presidential adviser David Gergen discussed the qualities of good leadership and the positive impact a woman or minority could have on the country as president during the first Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series program, held Thursday, Sept. 27 at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro. Details...

Gergen, chair of the advisory board at Elon University School of Law, was the featured guest during the inaugural program of the lecture series, held in the law school library. John Alexander, the 2007-2008 Isabella Cannon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership at Elon, moderated the discussion in front of an audience that included law school students, faculty, staff and invited guests.

Gergen encouraged students to push the boundaries of their own comfort zones in their quest to become good leaders.

“Put yourself in stretch situations, and eventually you reach a point where you feel confident that you can face anyone or anything and not be scared by it,” Gergen said.

Taking on leadership roles at an early age is critical in the development process, Gergen said.

“The earlier you take responsibility for others, the more leadership development you’re going to have. Leadership can’t all be taught in the classroom.”

As society evolves, Gergen said definitions of leadership have changed.

“The leader’s role is to become a leader of leaders, to make sure they’re leading,” Gergen said. “Your role is to bring the best out of them. More and more people are beginning to understand that leadership is not a top-down kind of ‘do this, do this, do this.’ Leadership today is much more about drawing the best out of people who are in your group.”

Gergen compared a leader’s role to that of an orchestra conductor.

“If you look at what a conductor does, it’s not ‘shut up and play.’ The conductor understands what the violins can do, and is trying to draw them forward, and where does that fit in with the cello and where does that fit in with the horns?…How do you conduct music as opposed to just conducting sound?”

In response to a student question about the impact of a woman or minority candidate being elected to the White House in 2008, Gergen said it would be “a terrific breakthrough to have the first woman, the first black, the first Hispanic as president. I think it’s really important for society. What we have learned from women and blacks taking on (higher) positions is that a lot of the old prejudices start to fall away, the old stereotypes start to fall away, because we see that the qualities of leadership that are necessary to lead well do not depend upon race or gender. They’re gender-neutral, they’re race-neutral. The qualities of character, good judgment, passion and drive, those don’t know a gender or a race.”

While his own views might be different from Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, Gergen said the country should come together and support either one if they are elected president.

“I don’t agree with Hillary Clinton on a lot of policy issues. I don’t agree with Barack Obama on a lot of policy issues. I’m not sure they’re the right individual, but that’s a different question. But the time has come to break all these barriers, and it would be really healthy for the country. I just hope that when we do, that we have enough generosity of spirit to not go after that individual because of race or gender. It’s going to be very easy to exploit those prejudices….It’s going to be really important that we try to pull together when that happens.”

A native of nearby Durham, N.C., Gergen said his high school job as a sports and news reporter with the Durham Herald-Sun provided his first exposure to the qualities of good leadership by introducing him to influential people in the community.

“Being around a lot of people who are older than you who have a lot of responsibility, you begin to learn about what works and what doesn’t,” Gergen said.

During the program, Elon President Leo M. Lambert announced the establishment of the David Gergen Prize at the law school. Created through an endowment gift from a donor in Gergen’s honor, the David Gergen Prize will be presented each year at law school commencement exercises to a graduating student “who best exemplifies the qualities of citizenship, leadership, integrity and scholarship that we think of when we say the name David Gergen.”

The Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series will continue at 6 p.m., Monday, Oct. 8 at The Empire Room on South Elm Street in Greensboro. The Honorable Henry Frye, former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice and member of the law school advisory board, will be the featured guest.