David Gergen on PersuasionOne of my favorite readings for leadership workshops is a short interview with David Gergen that appeared in the January 2003 issue of the Harvard Business Review. Gergen's comments concerning "How Presidents Persuade" have been on my mind recently as I notice how much of today's political pronouncements from official sources are hopelessly unpersuasive.
In the interview, Gergen, a professor of public service at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and director of their Center for Public Leadership, starts by talking about how leaders gain trust. Personal integrity is essential but not enough. "To have faith in a leader, people must also believe in his or her competence and steadiness," Gergen says. He goes on to argue that "you must give voice to [people's] own deep desires ... The leader and followers must unite around a shared vision."
Gergen readily endorses use of stagecraft to enhance one's persuasiveness. However, he hastens to note that a stagey gesture, such as the President reading letters from ordinary people during a speech, can only be effective if listeners trust that the gesture comes "from an authentic core." Conversely, Gergen cautions that "phony stagecraft, which isn't tied to truth or to an uplifting vision, will nearly always backfire, especially in today's media-savvy world."
The final point Gergen makes is that leaders certainly need self-confidence, but that sliding from self-confidence to arrogance and to a conviction that rules are for "the little people" (I can't resist borrowing the immortal words of Leona Helmsley) is to move onto a path toward losing followers' trust. Citing Eisenhower as an example, Gergen says, "Humility like Ike's, which conveys absolute assurance but at the same time acknowledges a leader's equality with followers, can be truly inspiring."