Leadership Lessons From the White House

Guest Author Blog: “Leadership Lessons from the Top” by Nick Ragone, author of “PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP: 15 Decisions that Changed the Nation.”

Presidential Leadership by Nick Ragone
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Presidential Leadership by Nick Ragone

Leadership is a slippery topic. We typically think of it within a narrow context: business leadership – earnings growth; sports leadership – winning championships; military leadership – winning battles; political leadership – solving problems; heroic leadership – first responders. The list is nearly endless.

And we tend to think of leadership principles as unique to that context.

That’s certainly what I thought when I wrote my current book on presidential leadership. It’s an examination of the ‘hows and why’s of presidential decision making. Why did Washington decide to put down the Whiskey Rebellion personally, rather than delegate it? What convinced Kennedy that a race to the moon with the Soviets was a winnable challenge? How did Franklin Roosevelt go about girding the country for war?

I was expecting to uncover some interesting ‘back stories’, and little more. But I quickly realized that there was a commonality to the “transformative” decisions of the office that elucidate an interesting principle about leadership itself —one that is likely applicable to other disciplines, such as business and even sports.

Guest Author Blog
Guest Author Blog

Four in particular stood out:

1. If something is too important to fail, don’t delegate it. When faced with a growing insurrection of Whiskey distillers in the summer of 1794, George Washington could have easily delegated the task of squelching it to Alexander Hamilton or others around him. But he didn’t. Instead he dusted off his old uniform, got on his horse, and personally led the militia that quieted the angry distillers. In his mind, the stakes were too high— nothing less than the future of the country hung in the balance— to trust the task to someone else. Failure to enforce Federal law would have rendered the Constitution meaningless. The lesson is unmistakable: If failure is not an option, then take matters into your own hands.

2. Don’t be afraid to evolve your point of view over time. Having an open-mind is sometimes confused for lack of conviction. Too often, we feel compelled to defend a position simply because anything less is seen as weakness. When confronted with the Nullification crisis of 1832, Andrew Jackson, as a southerner and states’ rights advocate, would have been well within his rights to remain sympathetic to the plight of South Carolina. But he believed that preserving the Union should come before regional interests. It put him at odds with fellow southerners, many Democrats, and even his own Vice President, but he believed it was the right course of action. His handling of the crisis averted civil war for another three decades.

"Franklin Roosevelt was at his persuasive best as he methodically brought the country from committed isolationist to interventionist in an effort to aide England during its darkest hour." -Author, "Presidential Leadership", Nick Ragone

3. It’s ok to get in front of public opinion. At times, this can be a difficult principle for business leaders to comprehend, but sometimes the situation requires it. Franklin Roosevelt was at his persuasive best as he methodically brought the country from committed isolationist to interventionist in an effort to aide England during its darkest hour. The Lend-Lease program, which helped arm and supply the besieged country, would have never occurred had Roosevelt cowered from the challenge. How the war may have turned out differently had Roosevelt reacted to public opinion, rather than changing it.

4. Don’t cower from tough choices. Harry Truman called his decision to fire Douglass MacArthur at the height of the Korean War one of the most difficult of his presidency. He knew it would be highly unpopular — so much so that it would likely make him a ‘lame duck’ president— but also knew that MacArthur had been insubordinate in threatening to widen the war into China. He never flinched from the correctness of the decision, even as he was vilified by the press, Republicans, and even some in his own party. Gerald Ford faced a similar quandary with his pardon of Richard Nixon. Ford realized that pardoning Nixon could sink his chances for winning election in 1976, but healing the country was more important than advancing his career. History proved him to be right.

About the author:Nick Ragone is an attorney and public relations executive in New York City and the author of “PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP: 15 Decisions that Changed the Nation.” You can learn more by visiting his website.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks