06/07/2011 01:11 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2011

The Conversation to Lead

Nancy Pelosi, the democratic leader in the House, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, are both pathetic communicators -- really laughably bad. They are both working in another century.

Press conferences, for both of them, entail a brief statement, intended to convey a single talking point -- ie "We have to cut spending"; or, "we will not sacrifice women's rights in the name of spending cuts" -- that they will repeat, respectively, half a dozen times as they take questions from reporters. They will never trying to actually answer queries, nor to seriously engage in a larger dialogue.

Leaders of the next generation will understand that publics are weary of political double speak and one-liners drafted by press shops. Publics are in dire want of leaders who engage, who inspire them, who can take massive issues and go beyond sounds bites and topographical debate. This country knows we're up against a perfect storm of sorts -- failing media, broken politics -- and that this world will become increasingly anarchic as climate change progresses and the global population booms to 9 billion by the mid-century.

I've spent the last year and a half interviewing former heads of state from around the world, asking them for their regrets and mistakes and lessons for generation facing a spate of global problems that bested their own generation. And, again and again, I ran into the importance of conversation.

Paul Keating, the former Australian treasure and prime minister, who might be the most talented leader profiled in the book, noted, "I often do speeches, and mostly do them extemporaneously, because I like talking to people, not at them. If you read a speech, you are speaking at them and, automatically, the connectors are not working. Whereas, where they see you think about the next sentence, and they see the intonation and the emphasis on the words, they're with you, they're coming along with you. And I think this marks out the people who change opinion."

This country often feels utterly incapable of political conversation; it's an axiom of American civility, after all, "no politics or religion at the dinner table," right?

We often retreat to what we believe -- "well, I feel," or, "it's just what I believe" -- because it is safer, and political talk often morphs into something gladiatorial.

But, if we're going to best these challenges, they will require leaders who speak up to the American public, and a public that demands much more of itself -- a public that is capable of conversations about ideas rather than beliefs.

When I met Bill Clinton in a staid office in the UN complex in New York, I asked him about curiosity and leadership. "I think you have to be able to talk to different kinds of people, reconcile different interests," he said, "and be curious not just in an aggressive way, but curious enough to ask questions and to listen, that's important."

The other fifteen leaders I met echoed that idea -- nearly without exception. To be a great leader, you have to listen.

Fernando Henique Cardoso, whose government kept Brazil from suffering one of the world's worst HIV epidemics, said: "You have to listen more than you think, listen to others. It's not enough to listen to your people, your team; you have to listen to people's anxieties. And people's anxieties are not expressed through words sometimes."

"Presidential formal meetings are senseless," he told me, "it's always twenty people around an oval table with only the presidents reading briefs."

"Normally, I don't read speeches, I don't write, I just speak," he explained, both with other leaders and his public.

Keating, speaking about the economic reforms that he authored in Australia -- renovations which sheltered the nation from the current financial collapse -- explained: "One thing I tried to do here was to have a completely open conversation with the community here about Australia's dire economic prospects as a rust-bucket industrial economy tucked away in the bottom of the southern hemisphere. We had to recognize that the day of reckoning was coming, and I took the community into a long conversation -- it really went for 13 years."

"An informed community does want intelligent change," he said. "The political system plays them as fools; this is a great mistake. They're not. They will respond if talked up to."

Brian Michael Till is a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Correspondent for the Atlantic, and the author of Conversations With Power. More at