In an era of mistrust, ‘we need more heroes’

Former presidential adviser David Gergen and his son, Christopher, visited Elon University for a public conversation on deep political polarization and the role of leadership in bringing American communities together again.

Christopher Gergen and his father, David, a former adviser to U.S. presidents and senior political analyst for CNN, have some advice for older Americans with leadership roles in public institutions: invite young people to the table.

When a young person feels invited to participate in decision-making processes, they feel heard, and they feel invested in the future of those institutions. The inverse is also true.

“If institutions are not doing that,” Christopher Gergen said, “they will lose their competitive advantage and become less and less relevant.”

The Baird Lecture featured Christopher and David Gergen, with the topic of “Leading Authentically in a Fractured World” at The Inn at Elon, March 20, 2024. Elon University President Connie Ledoux Book and members of the Baird family are shown here during a lighter moment in the conversation.

The Gergens visited Elon University on Thursday, March 20, for “Leading Authentically in a Fractured World” delivered as part of a Baird Lecture Series that brings to campus each year accomplished names in politics, science, journalism, technology and literature.

Christopher Gergen moderated the conversation as his father, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, regaled the audience with stories from his distinguished career as an adviser to four U.S. presidents: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton.

At the heart of their talk was David Gergen’s call for young people to consider national service as a way to find purpose, build community and better the nation by learning from others who come from different backgrounds. Nor does national service only mean the military. He said the Civilian Conservation Corps, established in 1933 as part of the New Deal, is one such model for government leaders to consider reconstituting.

“We need people to hear the call to service,” he said. “We need more heroes. It’s important to have heroes.”

Politics was another topic in the broader dialogue on fractured civic life. David Gergen chairs the advisory board of With Honor, a nonprofit organization formed in 2017 to fight polarization in Congress with principled veteran leadership. He cited With Honor as one effort to reduce political friction at a time when many people are losing trust in institutions.

Veterans want to go into public life, Gergen said, but they often don’t know how to get there. With Honor offers training programs that require participants to complete an “in-depth, multi-stage vetting process” aimed at identifying those likely to pursue bipartisan solutions to pressing issues.

“It’s been very encouraging,” said Gergen, who served in the U.S. Navy as a young adult. “It’s small in some ways, but we’re trying to help strengthen the center in politics, and in the House of Representatives in particular.”

The Baird Lecture featured Christopher Gergen, left, and his father, David Gergen, with the topic of “Leading Authentically in a Fractured World” at The Inn at Elon, March 20, 2024.

The Baird Lecture in the ballroom of The Inn at Elon was held just hours after the father-and-son duo enjoyed lunch with several Elon student leaders who were praised for their insightful observations about bridging generational divides. It also followed an identical program two days earlier at Elon University’s Charlotte campus for alumni, prospective students of the Elon Law Flex Program, and friends of the university.

David Gergen is the founding chair of the Elon Law Board of Advisors; the law school’s top award bestowed on one member of each graduating class is named in his honor.

“If you haven’t been to the Charlotte center, it is a really, really cool new place that is indicative of the bold vision and impact Elon is having not only here, but in Charlotte, and in Greensboro, D.C., and New York,” Christopher Gergen said. “It’s really cool to see Elon is starting to make its impact in the broader national conversation.”

About the Gergens

David Gergen recently retired as a professor of public service and founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. In addition, he has served as a senior political analyst for CNN and works actively with a rising generation of new leaders. David Gergen has served as a White House adviser to four U.S. presidents of both parties – Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton – and wrote about those experiences in two New York Times best-selling books.

Christopher Gergen has over 25 years of experience building, scaling and supporting systems-based solutions in communities globally. He is the founder of Forward Impact, working with policymakers, philanthropists, investors and innovators seeking to deploy capital into high-impact scalable solutions to address systemic economic inequities. Together, they will reflect on today’s societal challenges and opportunities and the mindset and skill sets required to help lead positive change in our increasingly fractured world.

About the Baird Lecture Series

The Baird Lecture Series was endowed in 2002 by a generous gift from James H. Baird and his late wife, Jane M. Baird, of Burlington, North Carolina. The Bairds were the first presidents of the Elon Parents Council, and their involvement with the university has spanned more than 35 years. Previous speakers include David McCullough, Anna Quindlen, Tom Friedman, George Will, Frank McCourt, Dave Barry, Leland Melvin and Sanjay Gupta, M.D.