Four Dead Presidents and a Marketer
Why spending some quality time with Lincoln, Roosevelt, Roosevelt and Johnson should be on your to-do list.
As my interest in American history grows (perhaps in a desperate attempt to understand how we got to where we are today?) I’ve had the pleasure of picking up the latest book by presidential biographer and all-around genius Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership in Turbulent Times. The book covers the different leadership styles, personal histories and crises of four presidents — the transformational leadership of Lincoln, the crisis leadership of Teddy Roosevelt, the turnaround leadership of FDR, and the visionary leadership of Johnson. Now almost finished with it, I can say that this is without a doubt the most valuable book on leadership I’ve ever read. And since I know not everyone is as compelled as I am to dive into 400 pages worth of case studies and US history of this (admittedly homogenous) group of men, I feel compelled to share some of my biggest takeaways — and how they apply to all of us, even if governing the country does not fall within our job descriptions.
In Service of the Greater Good
In short, ambition without mission is self-absorbed and useless (see how easily I just summarized things for you?) Throughout their lives, each of these presidents reached a turning point that awakened them to an idea of serving society beyond their own personal ambitions for power or prestige. Were they all ambitious and power-driven? Absolutely. But none of them were able to succeed until they connected their personal desires with those of the nation at large, and began acting accordingly. This shared experience of all four men brings to light what consistently makes the best leaders: Those who are confident enough in their own abilities to try the impossible, and then find strength in a shared goal that results in lasting impact.
This is a pretty simple direct translation into leadership outside of the political sphere. People know the difference between a leader who is standing in front of them because they believe in the purpose of what they’re doing — whether it’s selling shower curtains or big data — and a leader who is standing in front of them with only a personal endgame in mind. Take a wild guess and which leader they are more likely to follow.
Taking Open Action
Having a greater common goal ties in directly with another theme that can be seen throughout the challenges each president faced: honesty and decisiveness. Whether it was Lincoln working with his now aptly-called team of rivals (another pro tip there: surround yourselves with brilliant people who will disagree with you, and welcome their arguments) or FDR confronting the seemingly impossible challenge of the Great Depression, each of these men began by stating, with frank openness and honesty, the state of affairs, what exactly they planned to do about it and how they would execute the plan. Then — and this is important — they did what they said they were going to do. If it didn’t work, they tried something else. If it did work, brilliant, on to the next challenge.
Our first impulse in times of difficulty, particularly from an organizational level, can be to hoard knowledge and information until we’ve figured out how to present it. That’s not to say that presentation isn’t important — a unified point of view from the leadership level is key — but stalled action or prolonged periods of silence at the very moment when there should be a high level of communication breeds greater concern. To quote FDR “You and I know people who wear out the carpet walking up and down worrying whether they have decided something correctly. Do the very best you can in making up your mind, but once you mind is made up go ahead.”
Incidentally, FDR offers a great blueprint for overcoming massive challenges and restoring trust and support among the people, whether the people of a nation or of a company: First, state the issue at hand. Then, explain what you’re going to do about it and how you’re going to do it. Finally, be honest about what the people can expect of you, and what you expect of them.
The last part of that is important, because no leader operates in a vacuum. Each of the presidents covered in this book understood the clear importance of having the support of the nation they governed, calling upon that nation to support them and making it clear that they were going to work hard for the people — but the people, in turn, would need to work hard as well.
The Feedback Loop
That bit I mentioned earlier about Lincoln building a cabinet team out of the men who had opposed him in the election? That’s another common, crucial thread in leadership. Rather than relying on the old adage “I don’t know what I don’t know”, these were men who knew what they didn’t know, and called upon the best and brightest minds to close the gaps. And that’s the trick — not just to acknowledge points of weakness or blind spots in knowledge — but to then find the people who are strong in those areas, and come to them with a level of humility that allows for genuine learning and mutual respect. While not all of these presidents welcomed disagreement with the same vigor as, say, Teddy Roosevelt, they still welcomed it on some level. Building trusted teams that could and would give honest feedback was crucial to not only their leadership development as individuals, but also to their ability to lead the country at large.
And so it is within the business world as well. Striking the right balance between instilling confidence in your team while also being honest about what you do and don’t know is incredibly challenging. For that reason, it has often been considered the best leadership practice to portray an aura of assuredness even when you have no idea what the hell you’re going to do. The answer, in that case, is not to shift too far in either one of those directions. Come to your team in a panic, and they too will panic. Assure them everything is fine when they know it isn’t, and you’ll lose their trust. So it’s time to return to the FDR blueprint, with a few slight modifications: State the issue at hand, what you’re going to do about it, and how you’re going to do it. Then, ask for the input of others. Is this a good plan? A bad plan? Why? What would they recommend based on their own experiences? What knowledge are you missing that someone else may have? Ideally this is a process you go through first with a smaller group of people, before bringing it to the organization as a whole. And all the while, remember that timeliness and decisiveness is key.
Just Go Read The Book
I’ve just barely glazed over in approximately two pages what is covered in such astonishing depth over the course of 400 pages that my resounding cry at the end of any conversation about the subject matter is “just go read the book”. As stated earlier, there is a clear narrowness to what is being covered here (these are, after all, four white men who ascended to the presidency over the course of roughly 100 years, each presenting serious issues and flaws). And yet the direct impact and usefulness of what Doris Kearns Goodwin has done in profiling how these very disparate leadership styles and personalities effectively governed a country cannot possibly be overstated. It may seem a bit lofty and absurd to connect presidential leadership with the daily leadership of teams and organizations, but at the same time, I’ve certainly never gotten the best leadership or marketing advice from books about marketing.
So, just go read the book.