John Gardner on Leadership

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John W. Gardner

John W. Gardner born 1912, had a varied and productive career as an educator, public official, and political reformer. Gardner's belief in society's potential was his guiding force, but he was wary of the dangers of complacency and inaction. Perhaps best known as the founder of the lobby Common Cause, he was the author of several best-selling books on the themes of achieving personal and societal excellence.

Gardner's public career began with his employment in 1946 as a staff member at the Carnegie Corporation, a foundation dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. By 1955 he had become the foundation's president. In 1958 he oversaw preparation of an important report published by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, "The Pursuit of Excellence: Education and the Future of America".

While president of Carnegie, Gardner served frequently as a consultant to federal agencies. In early 1964, he was appointed by President Johnson to chair a White House task force on education. The panel brought in a report favoring federal aid to public schools to equalize education in areas of poverty and to encourage qualitative improvements and innovations in local communities. In late 1979 he aimed at insuring "the survival of the non-profit sector" in the face of federal encroachment. In the same year he was appointed by President Carter to the Commission for a National Agenda, whose task was to offer recommendations to deal with the likely issues of the 1980s. In 1981 Gardner was named to another presidential panel by Ronald Reagan, the Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, designed to find ways to make up for federal program cuts.

Biography continued….
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Contributions to Political Theory
In August 1965 Gardner became Johnson's secretary of health, education and welfare, remaining in that position until early 1968. He consolidated several of its social rehabilitation agencies and administered many of the newly enacted Great Society programs. After leaving the cabinet, he became chairman of the National Urban Coalition, a lobby working to halt the deterioration of inner cities. Frustrated with the opposition the NUC encountered from organized special interests, Gardner decided that a broader-based organization was needed to help bring about reform in an increasingly unresponsive political system. Thus in 1970 he launched Common Cause, a "public interest" lobby, concerned with a wide range of issues including the Vietnam War, social welfare, and environmentalism. By the mid 1970s Common Cause had become closely identified with governmental reform generally, including campaign finance limits and disclosure laws, lowering of the voting age, and reform of the seniority system in Congress.

How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
"John Gardner on Leadership." 28 Mar 2017

He stepped down as head of the organization in early 1977, remaining as chairman emeritus with an office in the same building. Common Cause membership declined after his departure, though the organization continued to be very active.
After Common Cause, Gardner co-founded "Independent Sector," an organization to help coordinate and advocate for many types of non-profit groups. He felt non-profit groups were a powerful outlet to channel important messages needing to be heard, especially pertaining to volunteering in America.

Gardner is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and prestigious awards from the labor unions AFL-CIO and UAW and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is a fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education. In 1996 Gardner received the James Bryant Conant Award for outstanding contributions to education in the United States. In 1994 Gardner became chairman of the board of the nonpartisan, Denver based National Civic League. The organization launched an Alliance for National Renewal, hoping to foster a universal ethic of volunteerism and stimulate cities to tackle their own problems. In 1995 after one year with Gardner as its guide, the Civic League had brought together more than 100 organizations that worked at community development in numerous ways. In the mid 1990s Gardner served as a professor of public service at the Stanford Business School. Gardner remained an active, visible symbol of civic reform and the national quest for excellence.

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Summary of Writings

Gardner produced his best-known book in 1961 titled "Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?" In the book he discussed the dilemma of encouraging merit in a democracy, urging commitment to high standards in education, and rejection of "shoddiness" in any field, be it plumbing or philosophy. Three years later he published a book presenting the case for emphasis on a "common good" without sacrificing human individuality "Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society." "Failure to face the realities of change brings heavy penalties." In 2003, "Living, Leading, and the American Dream," Gardner shares his views on personal renewal, community, leadership, and civic engagement. Gardner shares what we as a people desire, which is freedom and men and women should strive to achieve this innate ability. He states we are all enemies of the obstacles that prevent us from achieving this.
John W. Gardner expressed a deep belief in the dignity and worth of the individual, the importance of individual renewal and talent development, the imperative of leadership, and the value of liberal education. Gardner illustrates the practical and corporate benefits of envisioning goals, affirming values, motivating others, achieving workable unity, engaging diversity, preserving trust, and renewing self. Gardner asks a question that gets right to the heart of academic leadership: "How can we define the role of leaders in the way that most effectively releases the creative energies of followers in the pursuit of shared purposes?" The good practice of leadership involves striving to keep hope alive.

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Book Review
"On Leadership"

John Gardner
On Leadership

John Gardner is an optimist. He believed in people and he was committed to the
principle of self-renewal. It is also clear from this book that he thinks that everyone can
be a leader.

The development of leaders is possible on a scale far beyond anything we have ever attempted….
Many dismiss the subject with the confident assertion that ‘leaders are born not made'. Nonsense! Most of what leaders have that enables them to lead is learned. Leadership is not a mysterious activity. It is possible to describe the tasks that leaders perform. And the capacity to perform those tasks is widely distributed in the population… We have barely scratched the surface in our efforts toward leadership development.

In this practical book John Gardner offers his hands on advice for type of leadership
required for the increasingly complex challenges that regional stewards face today. He
outlines how strategic leaders distinguish themselves in at least six major respects.

1. They think longer term
2. They grasp relationships to the larger realities
3. They reach and influence constituencies beyond their jurisdiction, beyond boundaries
4. They put heavy emphasis on the intangibles of vision, values, and motivation
5. They have political skill to cope with conflicting requirements of multiple constituencies
6. They think in terms of renewal.

Gardner goes on to outline in detail the key tasks of leadership:
• Envisioning goals
• Affirming values
• Motivating people
• Managing
• Achieving workable unity
• Explaining
• Serving as a symbol
• Representing the group
• Renewing.

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"On Leadership" cont……

Beyond these specific leadership attributes and tasks which are described in each of the
chapters of his book, there are two other features that stand out: the moral
dimension of leadership and the importance of releasing human possibilities. At the core of
John Gardner's view of leadership is the idea of responsibility. In fact, in he has spoken and
written about regional stewards as the "responsibles". Here is what he has to say on what
characterizes morally responsible leaders

1. The Release of Human Possibilities: "There are great untapped reservoirs of human
energy an capacity awaiting leaders who can tap them and societies that deserve

2. Shared Values and Beliefs: "Societies need shared values and beliefs. Among the
fundamental values in our society are justice, liberty, equality of opportunity and
dignity of the individual…. We must hope for leaders that will help us keep alive
defend these fundamental values"

3. Individual Initiative and Responsibility "Given our ideals of individual
responsibility, our leaders have obligations to encourage the active involvement of
constituents or followers in pursuit of group goals"

In re-reading "On Leadership," in light of the many lessons learned as well as the events of September 11, 2001, I was struck by the following:

In time of crisis, individuals discover unsuspected strengths and a capacity for
bravery, endurance, generosity and locality beyond expectations. An increase in the
incidence of crises would not be welcome, but one must not dismiss the thought of
those hidden capabilities. In all of us there are undiscovered gifts, untested

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On Leadership (Paperback) by John W. Gardner

John Gardner, Uncommon American - from the PBS documentary. Includes detailed biography, historic photographs, video clips, and excerpts from writings.

John Gardners Writings

Independent Sector

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