USC Price School of Public Policy

Past HUD Secretary Cisneros addresses role of leadership in bridging nation’s divides

October 20, 2017

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Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros speaks on “Leading in the 21st Century” at the 2017 George Washington Leadership Lecture in Mount Vernon. (Photo by Dave Scavone) More photos available on Flickr »

By Cheryl Arvidson

Henry Cisneros, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, says the nation needs leaders who anticipate the times, not just react to them, if it is to overcome the deep divisions in the American populace and avoid a decline.

Cisneros, who is also the former mayor of San Antonio, delivered the fifth annual George Washington Leadership Lecture at Mount Vernon on Oct. 12. A partnership between the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington in Mount Vernon, the lecture series explores Washington’s accomplishments, providing a better understanding of him as a person, as well as his leadership, professional impact and lasting legacy.

What’s changed in America?

Henry Cisneros with moderator David Sloane (Photo by Dave Scavone)

Cisneros outlined a number of developments he said have led to a “very difficult time” in America. He described a “tectonic shift” in values, marked by a lack of respect for one another, cynicism, fear, anxiety, anger “and a tendency to pull into our own family, our own interests, and lock the doors and reduce interaction with other people.”

Although some cast blame on the president for creating an atmosphere of dissention, Cisneros disagreed.

“My sense is we knew what Donald Trump was when we elected him,” he explained. “What’s really changing is who we are and what we believe about the public interest.”

Cisneros added, “It is something we need to think deeply about, because many of these changes make it difficult to govern and very difficult to find common ground on principles and basic ideas that have always been part of the American process: bipartisanship and due process of law, a respect for civil discourse and civil dialogue, a respect for fundamental facts and science. If we’re changing the ground rules so those things don’t matter anymore, then we are in for a very, very rough ride.”

What’s needed in a leader?

From left: George Washington Library Founding Director Douglas Bradburn; Henry Cisneros; Sarah Coulson, 22nd regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association; and Price Dean Jack Knott (Photo by Dave Scavone)

Cisneros said to counter these changes and overcome the divisions, the nation needs leaders who embody many of the leadership qualities of George Washington, among them the ability to set an aspirational tone, explain complex situations, find the common ground, have respect for people and their differences, possess a sense of humility, and have the personal stamina needed to carry out a grueling job.

“Those sound very different as traits than the combination of conflicting forces that are tearing our country apart today, but we have to believe in them,” he said. “Leadership ought not to simply mirror our time, but in many ways uplift universal and enduring values.”

Throughout history, Cisneros said, many American presidents have demonstrated some “universal traits of leadership” that have helped move the country through crises or difficult transitions and respond to challenges. He pointed out that the current president “has yet to confront the kind of leadership challenges that have confronted other presidents.”

“We will see how he rises in due course to bring his own style of leadership to the circumstances we confront,” he noted.

Cisneros also expects voters to change course in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

“People instinctively know when things have gone too far, and time and again in American life, we correct,” he said.

Bridging deep divides

USC Price Professor David Sloane asked Cisneros how leaders who can bridge the divide will emerge in this time of “attention disorder.”

Cisneros responded that citizens needed to “truly listen” and be willing “to hear people who have different positions but are perceived as fair and able to explain” the problems facing the country.

Sloane also asked if the current electoral system was capable of getting the country through these troubled times.

“Dangerous, close call, but yes,” Cisneros answered. “It will require a lot of close attention and a suspension of cynicism on the part of the American people. I have great faith in the collective wisdom of the American people. I think we will survive this, but again, there is no guarantee that it will happen, that the 200-year dominance of the American ideal will go on forever.”