Leadership Competencies: Case Studies of US Presidents

Competitive EdgeIn honor of President’s Day, we have decided to examine the leadership competencies of several US Presidents.

While we’ve engaged in performance management of US Presidents in the past, a change in focus to leadership development could provide powerful case studies for HR executives to apply to their own personal growth.

A recent Workforce article describes the permanence of leadership competencies over time. These proficiencies are not flash-in-the-pan aptitudes that will work in one economy, but be less important in another. They are the very stuff that differentiates true leaders from everyday managers.

These leadership competencies include:

  • Leading employees;
  • Strategic perspective;
  • Decisiveness;
  • Composure;
  • Change management; and
  • Building relationships.

Developing these critical skills allows for organizations to survive and thrive across business cycles and through times of change.

In this installment, we’ll review the leadership development of Presidents Truman, LBJ, Carter and Lincoln, who all led the country through challenging times of change.

Change Management: Harry S Truman

USA 20 cent stamp with Harry TrumanThe nation’s 33rd President had impressively high highs and exceptionally low lows during his tenure. At the end of World War II, and the decisive Allied victory, Truman enjoyed some of his highest approval ratings.

Truman proved that the FDR administration’s leadership bench was indeed deep. His succession as President, at a turning point in the war, was promptly followed by his challenging (and challenged) decision to deploy atomic bombs in order to end the conflict in the Pacific.

The end of the war did not bring about the end of uncertain change as Truman’s tenure was marked by a quickly developing new world order, rife with economic instability and shifting power dynamics.

But Truman understood post-war politics well. His forward thinking was on display as he addressed a joint session of Congress to explain the importance of containing communism in Eastern Europe. The Truman Doctrine, which led to the Cold War, set the tone for American foreign policy for decades to come.

Truman’s leadership style was marked by contrasts with respect to his approach to conflicts:

  • While he approved the use of nuclear weapons to end the war in the Pacific, he also helped found the United Nations and NATO in order to encourage international collaboration, peaceful relations and accountability; and
  • While Truman was involved in two major wars, World War II and Korea, the first he inherited, and the second he entered only after securing approval for the military action from the UN.

Unfortunately, Truman’s initial national approval dwindled in the face of the protracted conflict in Korea and periods of high inflation in a recessive post-war economy. But history has judged his leadership style very well: Truman was a master of change management.

Decisiveness: LBJ

Statue of President Lyndon B. JohnsonLyndon Baines Johnson’s leadership style is well known: authoritative, often coercive, with marked decisiveness. Pictures of him negotiating in the Senate, holding his powerful, tall frame over peers, are memorable as studies in power dynamics.

LBJ was a true influencer in the Senate. He not only excelled at his own post, but also influenced others to accept or reject ideas or legislation on a regular basis. As anyone who has ever argued a business case for a new initiative, having the support of influencers proves invaluable. The future president’s fellow senators were wise to seek his support.

LBJ’s leadership skills developed throughout his rise in the Senate to the Vice Presidency, and after taking the oath of office in the aftermath of one of the country’s most traumatic assassinations.

LBJ, who became the “education President,” backed many laws designed to advance education. This support of knowledge-sharing can serve organizations well. Dr. Noel M. Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, often speaks of a “virtuous teaching cycle,” in which leaders create an environment where if an employee learns a new skill or develops a proficiency, then that employee should teach this new knowledge to others within the organization.

LBJ embraced this knowledge-sharing model well. In fact, he insisted that knowledge be shared with segments of the population that had never enjoyed previous opportunities. LBJ’s support of the Civil Rights Act was a turning point in the history of the civil rights movement, and of the Democratic Party. While many southern Democrats were upset with the President’s support of the Civil Rights Act, LBJ’s national popularity persisted.

However, the presidency could not outlast the demands of the growing Vietnam conflict and the deeply divided nation that lived through it. LBJ’s decision-making to forge ahead in Vietnam ultimately sank his presidency, and paved the way for his ultimate decision to not seek reelection.

Self-management competencies: Jimmy Carter

Main Street in Plains, GeorgiaPresident Jimmy Carter was a naval officer, nuclear engineer and peanut farmer before ascending to the presidency. Throughout his career journey, his most enduring character traits involved self-management competencies: his personal credibility and trustworthiness.

Although his policies in the face of sky-rocketing energy and commodities prices later in his tenure led many to yearn for a stronger, more conservative administration (a desire on which Ronald Reagan would build his winning campaign), President Carter provided a needed respite from previous scandal-plagued administrations.

In fact, due to his demonstrated credibility, President Carter initially enjoyed great success as a hopeful nation sought to put Watergate behind it. In contrast to Truman’s and LBJ’s war-time presidencies, Carter took pride in the fact that not a missile was launched, and not a bomb was dropped during his tenure as President.

Although he showed great empathy and self-regulation, Carter emphasized goals over hurt feelings. He has been credited as saying, “If you fear making anyone mad, then you ultimately probe for the lowest common denominator of human achievement.”

Although the hostage situation in Iran plagued his last year in office, President Carter is also remembered for brokering a historic Middle East peace deal – a feat of conflict resolution. In this case, it’s evident how Carter’s leadership skills complemented one another: his interpersonal skills and self-awareness led to conflict-resolution and motivational achievements.

Composure: Abraham Lincoln

Close-up of the face of Abraham Lincoln MemorialOne of President’s Day’s chief honorees is our 16th President who, as a self-taught lawyer and legislator from Illinois, shocked many when he won the Republican nomination, and then was elected President in the then-fractured nation of 1860. Yet, ultimately, Abraham Lincoln was able to keep the states together despite a terrible conflict.

President Lincoln kept his composure throughout the greatest crisis in US history. With respect to strategic decision-making, Lincoln’s willingness to engage in collaborative leadership, with the storied “team of rivals” serving in his Cabinet, led to unified goals centered on preserving the union.

Lincoln’s communication skills were second to none. As a Senate candidate, Lincoln displayed his oratorical abilities when he debated Stephen Douglas throughout Illinois. Although the young candidate did not win election to the Senate following the debates, his impassioned, rational speeches (including the famous line, “A house divided cannot stand”) led, just two years later, to his election to the nation’s highest office. His ability to move multitudes with his eloquence survives in his legendary speeches, including the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln’s words have motivated generations of leaders. His central themes, of self-determination, empowerment and composure in the face of immutable change, stand as guideposts for modern leaders seeking to inspire others.




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