HR Strategy

3 Management Lessons Past Presidents Can Teach Today’s Leaders

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Paycom Leadership

| Feb 8, 2017

3 Leadership Lessons from Lincoln, Kennedy and FDR

Every year, Americans celebrate Presidents Day as a day of remembrance — a day to look back and learn from our nation’s leaders. In today’s competitive market, business leaders are looking for the edge that will put their organization and workforce ahead of the curve.

This Presidents Day, Monday, Feb. 20, it might be time to dust off your history books and delve into the wisdom of the past. Here are three leadership lessons past presidents can teach today’s business leaders.

  1. Welcome critical feedback.

Leading comes with perks. People respect you, listen to your opinion and, sometimes, agree wholeheartedly just because you’re in a place of authority. But that last “perk” is actually not a benefit at all. Tempting though it may be to surround yourself with like-minded, agreeable people, doing so can prove detrimental.

The name Abraham Lincoln is synonymous with honesty. However, Lincoln also is known for his willingness to surround himself with individuals who weren’t afraid to disagree with him, rivals included. In historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 Pulitzer-winning book, Team of Rivals (the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Oscar-winning film, Lincoln) she recounts how our 16th president filled his cabinet with those who originally competed against him for the Republican presidential nomination.

Lincoln seemed to understand that finding common ground and considering all sides of an argument was more important than propping up his own ideals. The American Civil War brought death and destruction for many soldiers, but Lincoln’s staunch dedication to the eradication of slavery and his willingness to listen to those with whom he disagreed, helped foster eventual peace.

Leaders today should take a page from Lincoln’s book when hiring and promoting employees. Instead of asking, “Who do I get along with? Who will help me push this idea?,” perhaps they should ask, “Who can bring new ideas to the table? Who will benefit our company’s growth in the long run?” 

  1. Be passionate.

In a recent Entrepreneur article titled “22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader,” the authors tout passion as one of the most important attributes. Evidently, it is crucial for leaders to love what they do and feel a deep commitment to their purpose.

As the longest-serving American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt helped lead America during both the Great Depression and World War II. His passion for helping every American was overt. FDR’s deep desire to support his ailing nation helped propel him through physical illness (i.e., polio) and political opposition. A supporter of government assistance and for the unemployed and elderly, FDR once said, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” In 1935, he signed the Social Security Act, a culmination of his passion and focus, and what he considered to be one of his greatest achievements.

Politics aside, having passion for your vision will help you focus on what matters most. People naturally gravitate toward passionate individuals, and authentic, well-intentioned passion can help unify your workforce and inspire employees to achieve your company’s ultimate goal.

  1. Bounce back.

Most experienced leaders know that anything worth having comes with a little — or a lot — of struggle. The best narratives in history take place after a hero fails and then rises back through the ranks to succeed. Underdog stories inspire us because they provide a message of hope, even in the darkest times. For managers, leading after failure can seem like a daunting task, but overcoming obstacles with grace is one of the cornerstones for developing wisdom.

Our first President of the United States, George Washington, was no stranger to failure. In fact, during the French and Indian War, he experienced failure at Fort Necessity when he surrendered to the French. The defeat was embarrassing for the 22-year-old lieutenant colonel, but instead of wallowing in failure, Washington learned from his mistakes. More importantly, he consulted others, pursued the colonies’ freedom-driven mission and ultimately became one of America’s most admired presidents.

Another beloved president, John F. Kennedy, experienced a devastating setback after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion on Cuba. The futile attempt to overthrow the communist island resulted in his critics calling Kennedy inexperienced and weak.

Not long after this misstep, the Cuban missile crisis began, thrusting Kennedy to the helm of a precariously positioned ship once more. Instead of allowing his past failures to define the future, he learned from his failure and helped guide our nation away from the brink of destruction. Kennedy knew that leaders must have clear vision and a willingness to accept and learn from past mistakes.

Conclusion

Lessons taught before the internet and, in some cases, even the telegram, still apply to today’s business leaders. While many teachings are contingent upon the context of the history, others are universal and stand the test of time.

In the words of President John Quincy Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”