Are great leaders born or made? Does the man or woman make the times, or do the times make the man or woman? In uncertain times, understanding how leadership works (or doesn’t) is ever more imperative, and sometimes, it takes a historian’s perspective to unravel the present. Recently I listened to Doris Kearns Goodwin discuss her new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, in which she examines the careers of four U.S. presidents; Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
Each of these very different men found himself at the epicenter of world-shaking crises, and brought the nation through it to safety. Fortunately, most of us will never be tasked with dealing with that level of upheaval and uncertainty – but as leaders in our own spheres, there’s plenty to learn from their experiences. As different as they were, these four presidents shared some very important traits, qualities of character which Goodwin suggests were pivotal to their success.
First among these is RESILIENCE. All of them suffered setbacks, heartbreaking losses, and humiliating defeats in their careers. Their lives certainly weren’t charmed, in the sense of being free of conflict and challenge. Yet they transcended depressions and boulders put in their ways because they simply would not quit, even when common sense was telling them their efforts were doomed. That ability to bounce back is critical, because every leader gets knocked down at some point. The difference is whether you’ve got it in you to get up again and keep going forward.
AMBITION is another key trait they shared. Some people see ambition as a negative thing, but not me; I see it as a relentless desire to do better. Ambition in the service of others is noble; But to be truly noble, you must have humility along with ambition. For without humility, ambition can be hubris. Imagine what ambition it took for Lincoln to teach himself to read and write, and to be able to see himself – a barefoot boy from Kentucky – as someone with the potential for greatness! Are you challenging yourself to reach beyond your grasp? To do more, be more, and climb higher? If not, you may never know what you’re capable of.
Have you ever worked with a leader who didn’t listen to those around him or her? The implication is that they know everything, so others’ insights aren’t needed – but these four presidents knew better. Engagement with “THE COMMON MAN”was something each of them actively pursued. Abraham Lincoln would have weekly sessions with average Americans to hear their views on their day-to-day world. Even when his advisors suggested he didn’t have time for it, he told them it was among the most important of his presidential activities, and persisted. FDR gathered friends and people who interested him for regular Friday night cocktail parties, to hear alternative views and insights, and dispatched Eleanor to talk with people across the country to get their opinions on the war. Do you make time to listen to your “common man/woman”, whether that’s your customer, your vendor, or someone on the front lines of your operation? You might learn something that would help you be a better leader.
LISTENING TO OPPOSING VIEWS is another trait these four presidents shared. How many times have you caught yourself half-listening, as someone whose views you didn’t share was speaking, just waiting for the chance to jump in? When was the last time you sat down with a person from another generation, culture, political persuasion or gender and listened to their take on life?
Last week, I was talking with Mark, a man who owns a global company, about working with Millennials. He described having a conversation with a young employee who relies solely on technology – texts or emails – to communicate, rarely interacting “live and in person” with others. Mark said he was ready to write this young man off, but decided instead to listen to his reasoning – and came away with some unexpected insights on how technology can sometimes be a more effective way to communicate. Instead of trying to convince someone that your way is the right way, let them try to convince you– and keep an open mind. You’ll feel that much more presidential!
Next time, I’ll dig deeper into leadership style – and how to identify yours.