Three Leadership Lessons from Three US Presidents

In a dimly lit wine cellar, we turn to our meal. I am at a corporate dinner filled with executives from fascinating backgrounds. But there is one particular conversation, being led by a fascinating gentleman, that is entirely reframing for me what it means to be a leader.

I cannot tell you exactly how this particular gentleman gleaned his insights. His background, you will soon understand, is confidential. But he has learned lessons drawn from observations few people on earth have had the opportunity to witness.

Regardless of your political views, we must admit that becoming the president of the United States takes something special. Presidents navigate a bombardment of high-stake, complex decisions beyond what CEOs of even the largest global corporations face.

As the biography section of your local bookstore will attest, working a campaign for just one US president provides enough fodder to fill a book. But imagine observing not one US president but three, through not just one campaign but through six full terms, not just in boardroom meetings but through their entire day. This man did just that.

I am too eager to hold back. I have to know. I lean over the table to catch his eye and say, “Very few people in the world have had an opportunity to witness three presidents throughout their days, from morning to night, through their entire terms in office. Please tell us, what did you learn?”

He leans back, contemplates, and compiles three lessons that can make any of us more effective leaders:

  1. Don’t be a jerk.
  2. Only let good people stick around.
  3. Engender “walk through fire” commitment.

Don’t be a jerk

Every president gets a reputation. Sometimes they are labeled as “aloof” or “not intelligent” or “callous”. But these labels are created through marketing and media. In truth, you never get to that most senior role by creating enemies. Every president he’s met has been likable.

One of my clients, whose Fortune 100 company just got a new CEO, shared several shocking instances that show their CEO really lives up to the “jerk” reputation he holds. He says one thing, looks you in the eye, shakes your hand, and a month later surprises you by changing his mind. CEOs can sometimes stir the dislike of their people, but since their power comes from the board and investors, they manage to hold on to that power as long as they deliver results.

To reach the highest echelons of power, however, requires a character of likability.

Only let good people stick around

We have all held on to people who underperform a little bit longer than we should simply because we like them. Our kids go to the same school, we share the same interests, our thought processes are similar. But every president he has observed creates a dynamic in which underperformers simply cannot last. The stakes are too high.

Engender “walk through fire” commitment

When the US president calls you a 2am to ask a question, not only do you answer the phone, you stay up the rest of the night working on your answer, and you are ready for a 6am meeting to share your support. You need this kind of responsiveness because an administration needs to respond quickly to new information and political changes.

We admire Silicon Valley start-ups for being able to “pivot” quickly. One top venture capitalist said that 93% of his returns have come from “pivots”: when a management team realizes their current business is not the right one, they drop it and create a new business and that is the business that succeeds. Large organizations, it is often incorrectly believed, cannot pivot quickly enough to keep up.

But when the stakes are high, even an organization as massive as the US Executive Branch needs to be able to pivot quickly. This ability depends on the leader’s ability to engender “walk through fire” commitment to the cause. That commitment may be for the president himself or to the cause. Regardless, without such commitment, your ship will be too slow to turn.

How are your leadership skills? 

So to test your leadership effectiveness, assess yourself and your team on three things:

  1. Are you adopting a style that engenders “like” among your people? Do they want to follow you or are they just doing it because they have to?
  2. Do underperformers leave, or are they coached out, quickly or do you hold on to them too long?
  3. Are you effectively activating “walk through fire” commitment to your cause?

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