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Hearts Touched with Fire

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Hearts Touched with Fire

How Great Leaders are Made

Simon & Schuster,

15 min read
7 take-aways
Text available

What's inside?

True leaders follow their passion and their conscience. They persevere despite setbacks.

Editorial Rating



  • Overview
  • Concrete Examples
  • Engaging


Even casual students of US history know that Franklin D. Roosevelt lost the ability to walk after contracting polio. Serious scholars know that the devastating illness reshaped his character. In this study of what makes leaders great, veteran White House adviser David Gergen argues that suffering and failure can create turning points that improve a person’s life. FDR was a dilettante before polio, and a master statesman after. Civil rights hero John Lewis forged his identity while enduring racism and police beatings. Devastating personal losses shaped Joe Biden. Gergen offers insights into famous leaders’ life-changing moments and provides valuable leadership counsel, as he did throughout his career as an adviser to George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.


Individual leaders play a crucial role in human history.

Many prominent thinkers have posited that individual leaders don’t matter. For example, in Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, he made the case that even if Napoleon had never been born, another French warlord would have brought bloodshed to Russia. This determinism holds that humanity drifts along a predetermined path, and that individuals are powerless to change the course of history.

The more optimistic and more accurate view holds that individuals do matter. Historian Arthur Schlesinger famously made the case for the impact of a single strong leader in his essay, “Democracy and Leadership.” As he wrote, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt both survived near-death experiences in the early 1930s. If they had died, history would have turned out far differently. Roosevelt proved himself an ideal leader for a country struggling through economic depression and war. Churchill held Britain together through the Nazi onslaught. History offers no reason to believe that some other politician could have easily replaced Churchill or Roosevelt.

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About the Author

Senior political analyst for CNN David Gergen served as a White House adviser to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He wrote the New York Times bestseller Eyewitness to Power.

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