Leadership is about much more than just telling people what to do. The great leaders that we aspire to emulate are visionaries who give people something to believe in, who lead by example, and who are willing to sacrifice their own agenda in service to the greater cause.
The United States has endured for over two hundred years in large part due to the leadership skills of our great American presidents. Though we may not agree with every policy decision or military choice, what we can agree on is that overall America is able to make it because on the whole our presidents have been the leaders that we needed.
It’s easy to think that the leadership qualities of these men are far away, that they’re not relatable to the average businessperson. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are real-world, actionable steps that you can take from these history lessons. These lessons can tremendously help you grow personally as well as professionally.
George Washington – Humility
Let’s start off with the first founding father. Washington definitely had his issues (not the least of which is that he owned slaves), but he’s been canonized in the annals of our collective imagination for a reason. For everything, Washington practiced an incredible amount of humility.
First off, Washington never wanted the job. He was a great leader, but a reluctant one who was constantly unsure of himself. Though he led the troops through a bloody war and created a new nation, he always did so with heavy counsel from smart people who he brought to the table.
Washington knew he didn’t know everything.
Positions of power make it easy for us to think that we’re there because of some superior qualities that we have, but continuing to be open to the ideas of others allows us to grow and make the most of everyone’s gifts. Washington recognized that he wasn’t the only one who could lead the people. His stepping down after two terms, when he could have arguably been the defacto king of America, spoke of his willingness to lay aside his pride in service to the greater good.
I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I ⟨am⟩ honoured with. – George Washington addressing the Continental Congress in 1775
Franklin Delano Roosevelt – Sympathy/Empathy
We tend to think of FDR as this strong and stalwart leader who got us through the Depression and World War II, ushering in a golden age in American history. Those things are true, undoubtedly. FDR is the only president to have been elected FOUR times, and honestly might have been made king if he lived. But what made him so great?
The answer might just be polio.
Before contracting polio, FDR had not known much suffering in his life. He was the son of a very wealthy family, summering in style in Canada and in general living in the lap of luxury. He contracted polio at the age of 39 in 1921, and the disease changed his life. It was incredibly unusual for a middle-aged person to get the progressive disease and FDR fought back with the best doctors money could buy and with his wife Eleanor by his side. But nothing could stop it, and it eventually took his life.
Many historians point to his increased ability to understand the suffering of others through his battle with polio as being the reason that he was so passionate about the sweeping societal changes that he made, pulling us out of the Depression and creating the social structures that we know and generally love today. He’d had polio for 15 years by the time he was elected in 1936.
We’re not saying that you have to get polio to be a great leader. What is true is that understanding the struggles of others makes you a better leader and potentially a great one.
Theodore Roosevelt – Management
Of course a major aspect of good leadership is the ability to manage people effectively. That’s something that Theodore Roosevelt did incredibly well. Though he has a reputation for being hard nosed and holding fast to his decisions, he was known for never ordering people to do his bidding. Roosevelt always worked with people to get the job done.
Subtle isn’t a word that we often associate with Teddy Roosevelt, but it’s one that applies to his leadership style perfectly. Roosevelt didn’t just show people the way, he facilitated their success through scaffolding their progress. Hands on and ready to work hard, he made sure that things were done well and efficiently in government (or as efficiently as possible). His great vision for America was one that was grounded in practicality, something you can see in everything from the Panama Canal to the National Parks system.
“The leader must understand that he leads us, that he guides us, by convincing us so that we will follow him or follow his direction. He must not get it into his head that it is his business to drive us or rule us. His business is to manage the government for us.”– Theodore Roosevelt
Woodrow Wilson – Idealism
We round out our list with Woodrow Wilson. As with all presidents, and all people, there are certainly things that we could critique about Wilson, like his pushback against women’s suffrage, but overall the man who led us through the turbulent times of World War I was one of the great leaders of the 20th century.
“The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people” – Woodrow Wilson
Wilson believed that businesses needed to be checked, and he worked against corporate corruption in big business. Many of the safeguards, including anti-trust legislation still apply to us today. The reason for our entrance into WWI in 1914 had a great deal to do with the German submarines that kept attacking neutral targets, but it also was about Wilson’s belief that America could do better in stopping the war. He couldn’t understand cruelty, and worked diligently to end the suffering of others, all the way through the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles.
Another lesson to be learned from Wilson is when to take a break. Wilson worked so hard that he drove himself to a stroke while in office, and he was unable to run for a third term in 1920 because of it, though he was able to finish out his term.
Still, that spark of idealism is something that every leader should have. Leaders are here to serve the people who count on them, not to forward our personal agenda.
Which of these presidential leadership qualities can you take into your business? What can you learn from these storied individuals to improve your ability to make your organization better?