Leadership Lessons from US Presidents

by Stew Bolno


During January, we will witness the quadrennial inauguration of the President of the United States. History tells us that the ideas, perspectives, and decisions of each President make a difference. Whether or not you agree with their policies and political beliefs, their leadership skills and styles have helped every one of them to achieve success.

Effective leadership is not only essential for leading a country, but also is critical to leading an organization, a department, a team, or a project. Consider what we can learn from some our most recent presidents.

Effective leaders act from a core set of values. George W. Bush is steeped in his morality and religious values. They have an impact on how he views the world. Whether a person is in agreement or disagreement with his decisions, there is little doubt about where he stands on any particular issue. The clarity of his values helps to compensate for what some believe to be poor public speaking skills.

Question: How certain are you that your associates have a clear understanding on your core values as a leader?

Effective leaders know how to "connect with people." Bill Clinton had a unique sensitivity to the emotions of others. This enabled him to establish great loyalty. Since he did not govern in a pure ideological manner, this skill enabled him to keep supporters on his side, even when he was signing bills for which they strongly disagreed. There is little doubt that his true believers would have created strident opposition if the same bills were initiated, supported, and signed by other Presidents.

Question: What have you done to better understand the motivations of others in order to create a sense of loyalty within your sphere of influence?

Effective leaders know how to gain trust from others. George H.W. Bush (41) worked tirelessly as a war President in removing Iraq from Kuwait. President Bush did not communicate with great skill on television. However, his history of personal integrity enabled him to accomplish his goal of forming a strong coalition through his diplomats as well as his own one-on-one conversations with other world leaders.

Question: How would others respond if they were asked to comment on your reliability and integrity?

Effective leaders convey a clear and inspiring vision. At the beginning of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan described his vision for America as, "A shining city on a hill." This picture framed a distinct difference between America and Russia in the "cold war" battles. His words increased levels of confidence and optimism during a difficult time in American history. He was not called "The Great Communicator" for nothing.

Question: How interested and effective are you in inspiring others in order to overcome obstacles during difficult times?

Effective leaders are persistent in the pursuit of goals. Jimmy Carter demonstrated intensity and commitment in his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. He was able to encourage Menachim Begin and Anwar Sadat to strike a deal that laid the groundwork for peace, after a decades-long period of animosity, between Israel and Egypt. This successful agreement resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize for each of them.

Question: How successful are you in gaining commitment from others in your effort to achieve pre-determined priorities?

Leadership requires the ability to adapt to changing situations. Gerry Ford never desired or expected to be the President of the United States. However, history is revealing that he did a commendable job in the short time in which he was thrust into the position. Those who knew him well always considered him a leader. We have learned that it was the Democratic Leadership of the House who convinced President Nixon to appoint him as Vice President. Prior to this selection he had been elected, by other members of the Republican Congress, as Minority Leader of the House of Representatives.

Question: How flexible are you in your ability to adapt to unexpected circumstances? Can you give an example?

Leaders need to be willing to take risks. From the beginning of his political career, Richard Nixon was known as a "hard liner" on Communism. However, as President, he recognized an opportunity to change the world by going against his history and nature, in the pursuit of a higher purpose. Many political experts have stated that his open arms efforts encouraged the Chinese leaders to adopt a greater world-view in their attempts to "modernize" their culture and economic system.

Question: When was the last time you did something "unpredictable" in order to take yourself out of your comfort zone so as to achieve a grand and meaningful goal?

Leaders recognize that sometimes a great personal strength can be overused. Lyndon Johnson was a man who was ambitious, highly confident, and strong-willed. This helped him attain power as Majority Leader of the Senate, Vice President, and President. However, during the Viet Nam War, these very characteristics worked against him as he chose to actively direct Generals even though he had no military experience. This led to uncertainty, confusion, and added unnecessary complexity to an, already, difficult situation.

Question: What personal strengths do you possess that might become liabilities when used inappropriately or with others?

Effective leaders have a sense of self as well as a sense of humor
Although John F. Kennedy was President for less than three years, he was beloved by the American public. He connected with the citizens in ways that touched the heart as well as the mind. His self-deprecating humor and obvious self-esteem, earned him a loyal following that has continued decades after his death.

Question: How do you demonstrate your "lighter" side to others?

While each President's personality style may differ, we can learn something from each of them. During this inaugural time, take a moment to consider what you learn from them and how will this change what you do in managing your own behaviors and leading others.