Leadership Lessons from the Presidents

By Nick Ragone

There’s a cottage industry of leadership books from business gurus who offer up cutesy acronyms and bumper-sticker aphorisms. Most of these tomes wind up in the dollar bin not long after their release. Perhaps we need to look to other sources of inspiration.

The U.S. Presidency, for example. In many ways, it makes for the perfect institution for understanding the tenets of leadership. It’s enormously stressful, constantly evolving, and highly transparent. And measuring success and failure is easy—polls, pundits, and election results do a fine job of keeping score.

Not that we need to confine study of Presidential leadership to recent times. History is rife with wonderful examples, the principles of which remain as relevant today as 200-plus years ago.


Take the case of George Washington and the whiskey rebellion of the early 1790s. When confronted with the prospect of 7,000 angry distillers ransacking the capitol to protest a newly imposed whiskey tax, Washington could easily have delegated the task of squelching the insurrection to someone else, but instead he decided to lead the militia personally because the stakes were too high. As he saw it, nothing less than the future of the country hung in the balance. The inability to enforce federal law would have rendered the Constitution impotent, much as it had the Articles of Confederation. The lesson for business leaders: Don’t delegate tasks vital to the company’s future. If failure is not an option, do it yourself.

Leadership sometimes means evolving one’s point of view. Contrary to popular belief, Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist. While he sympathized with the slaves’ plight, he consciously subordinated their freedom to the cause of unionism. “If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them,” he wrote Horace Greeley in the summer of 1862. “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”

But as the war dragged on, with little success for the North, he began to realize that freedom and union were inextricable, that a Northern victory would be meaningless should it fail to abolish slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a gamble—would it push the border states to the Confederacy?—that ultimately paid off. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to change your thinking when circumstances require it.


There are lessons to be learned from failure, too. Woodrow Wilson’s intransigence was mostly to blame for the Senate’s defeat of his beloved League of Nations, the peace-keeping organization he had conceived during his tenure (1913 to 1921) as President and had campaigned for relentlessly. His refusal to heed good counsel, compromise on minor points, and acknowledge contrarian views alienated friends and enemies alike—and proved too much to overcome. Lesson: Don’t confuse conviction with myopia, principle with inflexibility.

Leadership sometimes requires getting in front of public opinion, something most chief executives feel reluctant to do. Franklin Roosevelt was at his persuasive best as he methodically brought the nation from committed isolationist to interventionist in an effort to aid Britain as it gallantly fought to repel the Nazi aerial assault during the autumn of 1940. The Lend Lease program, whereby the U.S. gave billions in free munitions and supplies to Great Britain, would never have occurred had Roosevelt cowered from the challenge. Lesson: Define the issues; don’t react to them.

Harry Truman called his decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War in 1951 one of the most difficult of his Presidency, a remarkable sentiment given that Truman is most remembered for dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman knew that MacArthur’s dismissal would be highly unpopular—so much so that it would probably preclude a second term—but the President was convinced it was the right move. To his thinking, MacArthur had committed insubordination and made a mockery of civilian authority over the military with his constant leaks to the press belittling the President’s military strategy. Truman lived by the admonition, “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” and never wavered on the correctness of the decision. Gerald Ford faced a similar quandary with his pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974: Do the right thing, or the politically expedient one? Ford understood that pardoning Nixon could very well cost him the election, but healing the country came before advancing his career. Lesson: Often the right thing is the hard thing. Don’t hesitate to put the organization in front of yourself.

Comments are closed.