Leadership Lessons from Great Past Presidents

What can great former U.S. presidents such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy teach us about leadership? Today’s business leaders can learn a lot by studying the wisdom and “management style” of some of our most admirable past presidents.

George Washington: Ethical entrepreneur

There’s no better place to start than at the beginning, with the man who, during his lifetime, may have been the most popular president ever.

George Washington was more than just an inspiring battlefield commander. His leadership, his vision, and courage united a war-torn country and set the United States on the path to greatness. Washington was an effective, inspiring, and visionary leader whose historic contributions to the nation were rooted in his character. Throughout difficult times he remained steadfastly honest and ethical, making him a role model for leaders everywhere. And, since his time, not one president has admitted to chopping down a cherry tree.

Washington was also an entrepreneurial businessman and innovative farmer. For instance, he was America’s leading promoter of the breeding and use of mules, the offspring of a male jackass and a female horse, making him the agricultural Steve Jobs of his day. Bosses who want to nurture and develop new ideas while maintaining a consistent code of ethics should take a long look at how George Washington handled himself.

Abraham Lincoln: Inclusive facilitator

He’s on the pennies in your pocket. He’s on the fiver in your wallet. Abraham Lincoln is considered by many to be the greatest president in the history of the United States, our greatest leader in the nation’s most trying time. Talk about leadership.

In her book Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin illuminates Lincoln’s brilliant leadership as he rose from obscurity to the presidency, triumphing over three gifted rivals with greater national reputations. When Lincoln emerged as the victor, his more accomplished competitors were dismayed and angry. Surprisingly, Lincoln invited all three to join his cabinet in prominent roles. Goodwin demonstrates that Lincoln’s success was founded in a character that had been forged by experiences that raised him above his more privileged rivals. He possessed an extraordinary ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires. It was this capacity for empathy that enabled Lincoln as president to bring his disgruntled opponents together, create the most unusual cabinet in history, and marshal their talents to the task of preserving the Union and winning the war.

Although having strong figures in his cabinet caused Lincoln considerable difficulty, by giving rivals prominent positions and taking their advice into consideration, Lincoln ultimately won their respect and went on to overcome the greatest obstacles ever faced by an American president. Great leaders in the mold of Lincoln are open to intelligent perspectives and good ideas—no matter what the source—and are confident enough to reach out to their rivals.

FDR: Political optimist

The next greatest challenge to face the nation came with the severe economic downturn of the Great Depression, followed by World War II. It took a man with extraordinary political skills to navigate those treacherous waters.

In his First Inaugural Address, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” inspiring a nation that was reeling from the Great Depression. But he also talked about leadership, saying, ” In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves, which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

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Roosevelt was known for his consummate political skill—his ability to deal with government bureaucracy, navigate party politics and special interests, and still address the needs of the people. In his fireside chats, broadcast on national radio, Roosevelt used his consummate communication skills to inspire Americans through the Depression and World War II. Through those dark days, Roosevelt retained an imperturbable calm. And, above all, Roosevelt possessed a magnificent sense of timing. He understood when to invoke the prestige of the presidency and when to hold it in reserve.

In order to survive the labyrinth of government, or work the corporate system, one must be a master politician. No factor was more important to Roosevelt’s success than his confidence in himself and his unshakable belief in the American people. What is more, he had a remarkable capacity to transmit his cheerful strength to others, to make them believe that if they pulled together, everything would turn out all right. Bosses who can inspire with their own indomitable spirits and an ability to get diverse groups on the same team might be compared to FDR.

JFK: Charismatic visionary

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy believed that understanding the people you are charged with leading was the most essential skill of leadership: “Most important of all, and most difficult to consciously pursue, is an understanding of the people you will lead. You, and at times you alone, will be the spokesman for the great and often silent majority. And the final measure of your administration will, in large measure, rest on how well you respond to their inward hopes while leading them toward new horizons of ambition and achievement.”

This may perhaps be the most elusive skill a president can have: he has to sift through sometimes widely conflicting opinions about what should be done to improve the country. The presidency of the United States of America is a multifaceted and complex enterprise requiring a president who not only has vision, but the ability to stand strong in an often hazardous crossfire of competing agendas and policies. Leaders who encourage new ideas and inspire their employees to look to the future do it “JFK-style.”

RELATED: President Obama: Modeling Emotional Intelligence

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