Hearts Touched with Fire: A book review by Bob Morris

Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made
David Gergen
Simon & Schuster (May 2022)

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Tennyson’s Ulysses

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded that Max Weber, a prominent sociologist in the early 1900s, originated the terminology for three dominant kinds of leadership styles: charismatic, bureaucratic, and traditional. He maintained that leaders embody all three kinds of authority models in different proportions or ratios.

Opinions differ — sometimes widely — about the importance of charisma. (It reminds me of an especially pleasant fragrance. Smells good but don’t drink it.) The title of David Gergen’s latest book was suggested by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. during a Memorial Day speech in 1884: “As life is action and passion, 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.” Holmes had served in the Civil War but could have been describing almost any situation of comparable stress and severe personal danger.

Some men and women seem to be anointed by a divine source, their hearts set ablaze with exceptional courage amidst great perils. That’s how Homer describes Achilles in the Iliad and that’s how most of the citations describe the heroic actions of those awarded a Medal of Honor or Victoria’s Cross. There are others, such as Tennyson’s Ulysses who, keep that heroic “flame” well into even into their twilight years. Whatever their age and condition, however, great leaders all seem to have a compelling presence (a “glow,” an aura) that attracts attention and elicits respect and admiration…often devotion.

Gergen has carefully observed all manner of leaders throughout his illustrious career thus far. A White House advisor to four Presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton), Gergen has been associated with leadership at the highest levels of government in the United States and countless other countries. Moreover, he is a keen student of leadership in other areas of human experience dating back to ancient times. And he has also gained an even wider and deeper understanding of high-impact leadership as a founding director and professor at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more than two decades, he has also been a senior political analyst for CNN.

Gergen shares his experiences and thoughts about accelerating leadership development in response to questions such as these:

“What are the defining characteristics of a great leader?”
“Are they born or made?…and if made, how?”
“What has greatest appeal to those who consider following them?”
“How best to measure their effectiveness (i.e. nature and extent of their positive impact)?”
“What are the most valuable lessons to be learned from Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech?

These are among the other passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Gergen’s coverage:

o Leadership of Conviction and Humility (Pages 25-29)
o Leadership of Grit and Ambition (29-33)
o Leadership of Character and Honor (33-37)
o Launching Your Career (56-59)
o Finding Mentors, Coaches, and Role Models (64-69)

o The Role of Sponsors (69-70)
o Constructing Your Owen Moral Compass (73-77)
o A Soldier’s Flaming Crucible (84-89)
o The Necessity of Moral Purpose (116-119)
o Managing Your Boss (124-130)

o Basics in Building a Good Team (138-143)
o Turning a Good Team into a Great One (143-149)
o Finding Your Public Voice (158-160)
o The Basics of Public Speaking (161-164)
o The Convergence of Inner and Outer Journeys (174-178)

o The Dangers of Self-Derailment (188-190)
o Common Failures and Their Antidotes (190-196)
o Adapting to a VUCA World (203-204)
o An Ostrich Nation (211-217)
o Learning from History (219-225)

David Gergen wrote this book for several reasons and one of the most important, in my opinion, is to share everything of value that he has learned over the years with as many people as possible, both potential leaders and others who could also help to nourish and support the development of new leaders. Joseph Campbell characterizes that process as a two-part journey: one that is inner and another that is outer. One key factor: personal growth and professional development are interdependent. “As the late Warren Bennis, a leadership guru and great friend, has argued, becoming a leader is fundamentally the same as becoming a fully developed person. You can have companions along the way, but ultimately you must make the journey yourself.”

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out two others: Nancy Koehn’s Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times (2017) and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership: In Turbulent Times (2018). These two books plus Hearts Touched with Fire should be among the primary sources and resources for any organizational program or individual initiative to develop great leadership, especially now when the need for it is far greater than any prior time I can recall.


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