Keynoter David Gergen Urges Leaders to Listen

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With a U.S. credit score downgrade and a plummeting stock market as a backdrop, senior CNN political analyst David Gergen called for solid leadership during these “turbulent times.” The former adviser to four U.S. presidents kicked off CRM Evolution 2011 on August 8 with a keynote address that shed light on the global economic crisis and drew parallels to the CRM industry.

“One of the advantages of being older is that you see a lot,” said Gergen, who advised Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. “One of the patterns you see is it’s important to keep basics in mind in the turbulent times we are living in now.”

Specifically, “don’t get too far from the fundamental truths and fundamental virtues, and you will find that you will get through life a lot more easily,” he said.

During his keynote, Gergen contrasted Nixon with Winston Churchill, who showed great leadership during World War II. “I think what you find with both Churchill and Nixon is that they were very much in uncharted water,” he explained. “The difference between the success that one had and the failure that the other had tells us a lot about leadership altogether and what one must do even in the current day.”

Leadership and politics in both the corporate and political worlds are “very similar,” he said. Mobilizing others to work toward a shared goal is a top priority for leaders in both fields and defines their success. “When you mobilize, you have to get people to get out and act and do something to buy a product, to sign a petition, to vote, to do something,” he said. “How you mobilize is very important, and it’s in the pursuit of shared goals, not your goals. The best leaders are those who draw others out, understand them, and mobilize to get them to do things.”

Reflecting on history, Gergen continued, the best leaders “spend time listening. It is not a one-way process. It is no longer, ‘Here is what you must do.’ It is a conversation in which you…begin to tease out the shared goals. You then convince them if these are what your dreams are, here is how we go about it.”

In addition, for leaders to effectively mobilize and persuade, earning—and keeping—trust is indispensable. “Whether people trust you or not is whether they are going to in fact be persuaded by you,” he said. “One of the central differences between Churchill and Nixon was people didn’t trust Nixon, and for a reason. He didn’t trust them.”

Referring to today’s economy, Gergen said the U.S. historically has responded well when there are “wolves at the door,” and not nearly as well when “there are termites in the basement.” He suggested the former scenario is at hand.

Executives should study the performance of Churchill during a crisis. “He inspired trust, he inspired faith,” Gergen said. “People knew he was telling it to them straight. He shared in the misery of what people were going through. He was not above it all. Churchill always believed courage was the number one virtue for a leader; without that, nothing else matters.”

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