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Leadership Thought #403 – What Makes A Great President

July 31, 2018

Free Mount Rushmore Stock Photo

I often ask myself (especially lately) what makes a great president.

I have spent considerable time studying leadership and observing leaders.  I also enjoy reading about the presidency and the 45 occupants of the oval office.  The most successful presidents have exhibited the following characteristics and traits:

  • They think big rather than small and have no problem with the “vision thing”
  • There is an obvious, consistent, and strong moral and ethical grounding to their decision-making
  • They are uniters not dividers
  • They are willing to tell the truth about crucial issues confronting the nation instead of just telling us what they think we want to hear or playing to their ideological base
  • They stay focused and tackle the most critical issues rather than getting sidelined by the many distractions natural to the office
  • They don’t shy away from making tough decisions and fully embrace the responsibility of presidential leadership
  • They have the courage of their convictions but are willing to reach across the aisle and compromise for the greater good
  • Their communication style tends to be upbeat and positive and appeals to our better nature
  • They tend to share the credit and shoulder the blame even when this gets politically complicated
  • They genuinely enjoy their interactions with the public and have a natural affinity and empathy for the common man or woman
  • They stay cool under pressure and don’t allow their emotions or the politics of the moment to force unwise action or lead to political gaffes
  • They don’t go it alone and tend to intuitively build relationship bridges and foster professional alliances with other leaders who are critical to domestic and international issues
  • They enjoy the political game rather than becoming annoyed by it or trying to always hold themselves above the fray
  • They keep the country looking and moving forward rather than getting mired in the past
  • They tend to have a good sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously

George Washington, our first President, offers an exceptional example of what it means to lead.  Not only did he lead the upstart Continental Army to victory against the most powerful military power in the world.  He also walked away from absolute power when he refused to become king of the newly formed United States of America, and voluntarily gave up his position as our first President.  I think that sometimes we forget how unusual, risky, and selfless these actions were at the time.

While most of us cannot scale the heights of his character there is still much, we can learn about leadership from the man who would not be king:

  • The way you carry yourself as a leader matters. Washington was known for having impeccable manners and professional attire.  He was also highly regarded for treating everyone around him with dignity and respect.  Your behavior should match the nobility of your purpose.
  • Strive to be as honest and straightforward as possible:  Everyone knew that when you spoke with Washington you were getting the truth and he would be a man of his word including his slaves who were freed upon his death as promised.
  • An army needs structure and discipline, and you don’t require it at your own peril. Washington was a “by the book” type of guy.
  • Training matters.  He made sure his underfunded and overmatched troops were properly drilled and instructed.
  • Keep your communication clear and concise.  Washington was not a great orator or writer.   He accepted this fact and instead made sure his messages were devoid of ambiguity.
  • Strategy should drive tactics not the other way around.  The Continental Army lost many more battles than it won, but Washington knew it was a war of attrition and that if he played his cards right the British would eventually give up.  He had a plan and stuck to it.
  • Surround yourself with the best talent possible and give them clear directions and then trust that they will do their job.  And, when you need to give constructive feedback only ever do it in private and in a gracious manner.
  • Experience what your troops are experiencing. Don’t get too far from the front lines or remove yourself from Valley Forge-type situations. Your people need to know that you appreciate and care about what they are going through.
  • Don’t get sucked into the vortex of political infighting or non-productive interpersonal communication.  Washington was notorious for having little patience for pettiness and backroom posturing.
  • Don’t try to do too much. Understand the moment you are in, focus on the most important priorities, and do those well.  Avoid the leadership temptation of over-reaching.
  • Know when not to fight.  It would have been easy to get pulled back into another conflict after The Revolutionary War, but he steadfastly and wisely refused to take the bait as President.
  • Know when to walk away. It sounds easier than it is.  Washington knew when it was time for him to move on and let others step up.  He wouldn’t have been human if his leadership ambitions were never about him, but it does seem that he always put the good of the country above his own ego.
  • Appreciate and love your spouse and be a generous supportive family member and friend.  Your core personal relationships provide the foundation from which you can cultivate your talents and launch your professional ambitions.

George Washington was truly a great man.  We are all still benefiting from his leadership.  Our current leaders could learn a great deal from him if they would only take notice and follow his example.