McCullough tells what it takes to lead

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Emmy-winning host David McCullough joined a capacity crowd at Irvine Auditorium to celebrate this year’s School of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Scholars on March 31. McCullough, the speaker for this year’s Dean’s Forum, talked about leadership, reminding the audience that history is never a foregone conclusion. In his words: “Nothing had to happen the way it actually happened.”

McCullough’s voice was easily recognized by the crowd from his narration of “The American Experience,” “The Civil War” and “Seabiscuit.” The famed historian—who also wrote “Truman” and “John Adams,” among other books—urged the newly awarded Dean’s Scholars to realize that there is “no such thing as a self-made man or woman. All leaders are products of many people, especially teachers. Universities are as high an achievement as any in our culture.”

“Leaders come in all shapes and sizes,” said McCullough. “Often [they] seem unextraordinary until they are thrown into adversity.” It is the intangibles of personality, he continued, that help unique people come to the forefront of society. Borrowing from George Marshall, McCullough added, “When everyone seems critical and pessimistic, a leader must be cheerful and optimistic.”

He also reminded the audience that “leadership and popularity are not synonymous.” A true leader, he said, remembers that history is the ultimate judge, not the daily opinion polls of the present. Those remarks anticipated the question-and-answer period, where McCullough fielded an inquiry about the leadership qualities of George W. Bush.

Though a few in the audience snickered when the historian spoke well of the current president, there was noticeable applause when he added, “George W. Bush is a good man. Very few presidents have been put in such trying times.” He also noted that one of the surest signs of good leadership is surrounding oneself with superb assistants. The Bush cabinet, he said, “is one of the best we have ever seen.”

Originally published on April 15, 2004