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Monday, February 15, 2021

President’s Day: 5 Leadership Lessons From Past Presidents

Past leaders can teach us a great deal about how we can become leaders today. Biographies, memoirs and documentaries abound which underscore the achievements and abilities of the numerous outstanding leaders who came before us. The history of the United States in particular is filled with past presidents who are excellent examples of great leaders. Their various qualities and characteristics are often cited as the key to their leadership abilities, and these qualities are often emulated by others.

Anyone can learn to be a leader. After all, the often quoted phrase says “leaders are made, not born.” This is in part because leadership is not a single trait, but it is an over-arching skill set comprised of multiple abilities. As such, the lives of different leaders exemplify different elements of leadership. Elements of leadership include the ability to take criticism gracefully, to communicate well with those around them and to have a clearly stated goal or vision. These elements of leadership can be learned through studying the lives of past leaders who used these elements to alter or redirect the course of history. Here are five leadership lessons from past presidents which highlight a particular skill used during their time in office.

1. Abraham Lincoln imagined what could be and made it happen with civility. When Lincoln set out to create the Emancipation Proclamation, he imagined a reality that so many couldn’t, and one that many refused to. Not only did Lincoln change the course of history through this movement, but he did it with such grace against great opposition.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes of Lincoln in her book “Team of Rivals,” that in the days leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation the president would often say, “To win a man to your cause you must first reach his heart, the great high road to his reason.”

As a leader, Lincoln showed us how to see through a conviction with grace and civility.

2. Franklin Roosevelt possessed financial wisdom. Roosevelt was our longest-serving president, leading our country through a tumultuous era. Roosevelt was elected during the Great Depression and remained in office until his death, just months before the end of World War II in 1945.

Even during our country’s most vulnerable seasons, Roosevelt discovered ways to strengthen our financial protection by increasing the role of the federal government and instilling programs such as Social Security.

It was Roosevelt’s financial stewardship and wisdom that helped America to rise from such a trying season.

3. Thomas Jefferson remained innovative. Most widely known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson is also remembered as a creative. Some even refer to Jefferson as “the last Renaissance man.”

Having mastered six languages and playing the violin, Jefferson also designed the architecture of his home. Jefferson’s innovative and renaissance spirit shaped much of what America is today. He paved the way for many new steps in America and all the while continued to never lose interest in learning, growing and trying new things. Jefferson once said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

An innovative entrepreneurial spirit can lead a nation or a company where it’s never been before.

4. Ronald Reagan embodied constant character. Although presidents of the past have led with character as well, Reagan may be most remembered for possessing this vital leadership trait during trying times.

In an essay, Peggy Noonan wrote on the courage Reagan held to reinstate a conservative nation following a wave of more widely-accepted liberal leadership. Noonan wrote, “Yes. At the core of Reagan's character was courage, a courage that was, simply, natural to him, a courage that was ultimately contagious. When people say President Reagan brought back our spirit and our sense of optimism, I think what they are saying in part is, the whole country caught his courage.”

Reagan’s spirit influences leaders and even politicians today that staying true to your values and vision requires courage and character.

5. George W. Bush led with empathy. Many may have considered Bush’s emotional tendencies as a negative trait, but his passion and empathy were strengths he possessed as president.

Bush often wore his heart on his sleeve and embodied a great passion for people during some of America’s darkest days. Leading the nation through the terror and tragedies of 9/11, Bush’s empathy brought peace to America at a time when little would. He put himself right on the scene in New York City and cared for the people impacted by this event.

While it may take you out of your comfort zone at the time, lead the people around you with compassion and empathy.

There is no doubt that something is to be learned from each man who has led our nation, but some men simply stand out above the rest. It’s not based on their religious beliefs, their party affiliations or even their charisma, but it is based on how they chose to lead.

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