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Presidential Leadership Lessons

Posted on 17 September 2008

As modern-day presidents struggle with the challenges of an office more complex than that of their predecessors, the captains of business and industry wrestle with problems that seem overwhelming. Recognizing the parallels between these two jobs, today’s CEO might consider emulating the management traits and personal qualities that earned our greatest presidents their place in history.

“I think CEOs would want to examine the modern presidents simply because they reflect the kind of conditions CEOs face today,” says iversity of Tennessee Associate Dean Dr. Robert Swansbrough, former political science department chair.

Speed of Events
Those conditions include a fast-paced and highly competitive environment coupled with instant TV media scrutiny that threaten to overwhelm a chief executive. Recent events–the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Enron debacle–show the mind-boggling speed with which events can transform both a presidency and a business.

The September 11 attacks and the Enron debacle show the mind-boggling speed with which events can transform both a presidency and a business.

So what traits best serve the person at the top in today’s roiling political and economic waters? One hears much about a leader’s ability to not only frame a vision, but also to effectively communicate it to the public. Just look at the last presidential election, when both candidates were judged lacking in this quality. Among those able to inspire with a coherent vision and the skills to communicate it, says Swansbrough, were John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

In his prologue to Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency, David Abshire of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, says today’s chief executive needs to display “transformational” rather than “transactional” leadership. Such leadership requires both vision and communication skills, as well as a good match between a leader’s character and the crises that he faces, he adds.

The Vision Thing
Swansbrough cites Apple CEO Steve Jobs as a charismatic leader able to generate enthusiasm for his corporate vision.

But vision should be tempered with the well-reasoned advice from a carefully selected cabinet or staff. Abshire cites Washington and Truman as good team builders, stocking their Cabinet with those smarter and more creative than themselves. Team building, however, can be a delicate balancing act, says Swansbrough. An over-reliance on advisors brought Reagan the Iran-Contra fiasco and Carter the Iran hostage crisis.

“A president–and a CEO–has to recognize he bears ultimate responsibility and that the buck does stop here,” says Swansbrough. Carter understood this when, ignoring his advisors, he brought Begin and Sadat together to produce the Camp David Accords.

Integrity Is Key
But vision and eloquence can be rendered impotent if a leader isn’t also perceived as trustworthy. While Carter may not be seen as a charismatic visionary, he was viewed as a moral person who walked the talk.

No match for FDR’s oratorical skills and flashy style, Truman left office without high approval ratings. But today, presidential scholars point to his boldness and integrity when ranking him among the top five presidents. Malden Mills CEO Aaron Feuerstein embodied this quality when he promised his workers continued employment after a fire destroyed his business.

Integrity may well be the quality that trumps all of the others. Says Swansbrough, “If you lose that, you’ve lost a major asset of leadership.”

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