Some Business & Leadership Lessons From Past Presidents

Some business and leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson:

Temperament is the great separator. Four days after FDR took the presidential oath in 1933, he visited former Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was celebrating his 92nd birthday. After that visit, Holmes described Roosevelt as having, “A second-class intellect. But a first-class temperament.”

Intelligence is important but it’s useless if not paired with the correct temperament.

Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin points out the key to Roosevelt’s success as a leader came down to his “self-assured, congenial, optimistic temperament.”

FDR helped guide the country through some dark days following the Great Depression and the years leading up to World War II. His confidence and optimism were a big reason the country made it through those difficult times.

You always have to be realistic but no one wants to follow someone who isn’t upbeat and positive about the future. Pessimists don’t make great leaders.

Strong opinions, weakly held. When his formal education was cut short at age 9, Abraham Lincoln was forced to educate himself. He read every book he could get his hands on, a habit he would carry into adulthood when he became a politician, reading books on long train rides as he canvassed the country.

It was through this self-education that Lincoln developed an open mind. He pledged to his constituents early on in his political career that if his opinions on a subject later turned out to be wrong he was more than “ready to renounce them.” Honest Abe had the rare ability to acknowledge his errors and learn from his mistakes.

There’s nothing wrong with being confident in your own abilities but there is a fine line between confidence and ego. When you’re ego gets too big you never want to admit you’re wrong. True confidence comes from the ability to change your mind when necessary.

Storytelling is more important than statistics. When FDR took office, electricity was sparce in most rural areas. In fact, 9 out of 10 farms in America had no electricity. Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Act in 1936 brought electricity to millions of family farms.

But when Lyndon B. Johnson entered the House of Representatives in the late-1930s, there were still many families in the Texas Hill Country who still had no electric power. Johnson made a promise to these families that, if elected, he would make sure they got it.

Johnson was able to secure a meeting with Roosevelt after the two men got to know one another but FDR’s time was valuable. Following a short presentation full of exhibits and details, Johnson knew his time was running out so he decided to paint a picture for the president. Here’s what Goodwin wrote about this:

Johnson began explaining that the people in his district could not get power because of a population density requirement in the REA guidelines. He then, as he later told Lady Bird, painted “a mental picture of all those women out there, old before their time, bending over the wash pot, and all those men getting up on a cold winter morning to milk those cows, where there could have been electric washing machines and milking machines.” This aspect of the story was not confined to facts and figures; it was grounded in emotional memories of his mother hauling water from a well, washing clothes on a corrugated washboard, forced to heat the iron on a red-hot wood stove even at the height of summer, scrubbing floors on her hands and knees, consumed by backbreaking chores that left her too exhausted to read the books piled high beside her bed.

Roosevelt was enthralled by the gifts of a fellow storyteller. In the end, he surrendered to the conviction of the young man himself.

Johnson walked out with a million-dollar loan, later claiming the meeting was one of the happiest moments of his life.

Some people are born story-tellers but this is a skill you have to master if you ever hope to get others to buy into your ideas, opinions, business or product. Storytelling can be the difference between getting a “yes” or a “no” from a customer, your boss or a prospective employer.

Few people remember a good statistic but everyone remembers a good story.

Simple is better than complex. Lincoln was also a masterful story-teller but it was the way he told his stories that made him so popular with his fellow citizens and voters.

Lincoln once explained the following to a friend:

They say I tell a great many stories. I reckon I do; but I have learned from long experience that plain people, take them as they run, are more easily influenced through the medium of a broad and humorous illustration than any other way.

Abe was notorious for his uncanny ability to break down complex issues into their simplest elements. When he was a lawyer a fellow attorney observed, “His language was composed of plain Anglo-Saxon words and almost always absolutely without adornment.”

Speaking plain English allowed Lincoln to get his point across to jurors and voters alike because his stories were so accessible.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are if your audience doesn’t understand what you’re talking about. One of the best ways to prove your expertise over a subject matter is through the ability to explain a complex topic in such a way that anyone can understand it.

Patience is key. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis the country was on the brink of nuclear war. John F. Kennedy was being pulled in a million different directions by his cabinet members and advisors. Throughout his first couple of years as a young president, Kennedy was provoked and put to the test by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

At times, it seemed like Kennedy was outmatched. But in the 13 days that put an end to the threat of nuclear war, Kennedy was more than up to the task. Instead of acting quickly and aggressively, as many of his advisors urged him to do, he took his time to think through his options and allow cooler heads to prevail.

Kennedy challenged the Russians without being too threatening to the point of provocation. He basically threaded the needle and averted disaster. Ryan Holiday explains:

What’s most remarkable about this conclusion is how calmly Kennedy came to it. Despite the enormous stress of the situation, we can hear in tapes and see in transcripts and photos taken at the time just how collaborative and open everyone was. No fighting, no raised voices. No finger-pointing (and when things did get tense, Kennedy laughed it off). Kennedy didn’t let his own ego dominate the discussions, nor did he allow anyone else’s to. When he sensed that his presence was stifling his advisors’ ability to speak honestly, he left the room so they could debate and brainstorm freely. Reaching across party lines and past rivalries, he consulted openly with the three still-living ex-presidents and invited the previous secretary of state, Dean Acheson, into the top-secret meetings as an equal.

Marc Andreessen has talked in the past about the importance of stress testing your thinking before making a big decision. He once said, “If necessary we’ll create a red team. We’ll formally create the countervailing force and designate some set of people to counter-argue the other side.”

Our brains are not hard-wired to look at the other side of an argument so this is something that takes a lot of effort.

Timing and luck will always play a role. Teddy Roosevelt, who was a distant cousin of Franklin, once said, “If there is not the war you don’t get the great general; if there is not a great occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would have known his name now.”

Goodwin explains how some presidents were up to the task while others wilted under the pressure:

President James Buchanan was temperamentally unfit to respond to the intensifying crisis over slavery that would confront Abraham Lincoln. President William McKinley encountered the same tumultuous era as Theodore Roosevelt but failed to grasp the hidden dangers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. President Herbert Hoover’s fixed mind-set could not handle the deepening depression with the creativity of Franklin Roosevelt’s freewheeling experimentation. President John Kennedy lacked the unrivaled legislative skill and focus that Lyndon Johnson brought to the central issue of the time—civil rights.

Luck, both good and bad, often plays a larger role in how things shake out than most are comfortable admitting. This means you have to be ready when an opportunity presents itself.

Reading Material:

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

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