3 Presidential Leadership Lessons

At the time of writing this, the US Election has been called by the Media, for former Vice President, Joe Biden, with Senator, Kamala Harris as his Vice President. Regardless of your personal preference for the outcome, this is a historical moment.

Right now, Biden and Harris are making speeches about unity and healing and putting together a transition team. It won’t be easy. Rhetoric alone will not get the COVID-19 Pandemic under control or get buy-in from the 70-million Americans who didn’t vote for them.

What strategies can the new President use, and what can we learn that we can apply to our own leadership challenges?

I was born in 1961, the year President Kennedy (JFK) took office as the 35th President of the United States of America. Kennedy, a Democrat, took over from Eisenhower, a Republican, and inherited the containment doctrine of the 1940s and 1950s.  This doctrine founded on the belief that Communism was a threat to the United States seemed archaic to Kennedy who possessed a new international vision.

Lesson 1: Take Responsibility

Things did not start off well for young JFK. Just a few months after taking office, he authorized a CIA clandestine invasion of Cuba by a brigade of exiles. The operation was based on faulty intelligence and resulted in the disaster we now know as ‘The Bay of Pigs’.

Even though Kennedy had inherited this plan from Eisenhower, and it was executed by the CIA, he took full responsibility.

“There's an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan… I'm the responsible officer of the Government…”
John F. Kennedy, April 20, 1961.

A Gallup poll taken the following week showed Kennedy had an 83% approval rating and 61% of Americans approved of his handling of the invasion.

It is hard not to contrast this to President Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic, where he refused to take any responsibility and never gained approval ratings above 50%.

The clear leadership lesson here is that if you are the boss, “The Buck Stops Here” (Harry Truman).

Decorated Navy Seal, Jocko Willink calls this attitude ‘Extreme Ownership’ in his book of the same name. I would call it Self-leadership because you can’t lead others unless you first lead yourself.

Failure isn’t final, but if you abdicate your responsibility, your leadership will be.

Lesson 2: Set Big Goals

In September 1962, Kennedy delivered his famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech in front of a crowd of 40,000.

The previous year, the Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, had successfully orbited the Earth, and the Americans were fearful of Soviet space dominance.

The speech was remarkable, not just for its vivid pictures and soaring metaphors, but because NASA was months away from orbiting an Astronaut and had no idea how it would achieve the goal.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” 

In tough times, it’s easy to focus on the tactical but it’s the big vision and the big goals that inspire people to ‘go the extra mile’.

As a leader, are you setting audacious goals and giving inspiring speeches?

Lesson 3: Put the Right Team Together

In December 2019 I was fortunate to attend a conversation with the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama.

As a Professional Speaker myself, I confess that I am a fan of Obama’s humorous oratory style. It was a pleasure to listen to him ‘riff’ on wide-ranging topics with an intoxicating mix of humility and gravitas.

A couple of takeaways I would like to share for you to integrate into your leadership development include, ‘Put the Right Team together and get out of the way’ and ‘We need more women leaders’.

Anyone in a leadership position needs to build an effective team of people who are smart and have integrity. It is my experience as an Executive and Leadership Coach, that I can evaluate the effectiveness of a leader by the competency of their direct reports. Strong leaders have a strong ‘bench’ of direct reports, who each, in turn, has a strong team; whereas weak leaders are surrounded by ‘yes-men’, who add little value.

If you take responsibility and have big goals, you will attract the right people, and you will leverage your leadership.

Obama’s insight that we need more women leaders should now be self-evident. In terms of the COVID-19 response, it is the women leaders like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ahern and Germany’s Angela Merkel who have role-modeled an effective response.

Among other things, Women bring perspective, resilience, and empathy to a leadership team.

Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as Vice President is a timely breaking of the U.S political ‘glass-ceiling’ and serves as an inspiration for women everywhere.

It is important to remember that hiring women to leadership positions should be because the outdated biases have been removed, not for tokenism or as ‘Virtue Signaling’.

Biden and Harris started this race as equals and competitors, now they will be tested as collaborators. As the saying goes, “Iron sharpens iron”.

As a leader, do you have diverse collaborators who can challenge you to make the best decisions and be the best you can be?

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