President's Day 2011 Leadership Lessons

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Today is President's Day. When I was a boy, there were separate holidays for Washington and Lincoln, keyed to their birth dates, but today they're both covered on a single day that gives a three day weekend to Federal employees.

You can learn a lot about leadership by studying the lives of the presidents. Just don't look for the usual things that books and articles suggest. Forget traits and zero in on behaviors. Ask yourself: "What did he do and how did it work out?"

Lesson: Learn from what they did and how it worked.

Counting Barack Obama, there have been forty-four US presidents. There's no federal holiday named for any of them.

Lesson: It's not about you.

We call some of our presidents "great," but you can't be great without a great challenge. Dig through their bios to find what great presidents did to prepare themselves to meet a challenge that probably couldn't predict.

Lesson: Great leaders prepare in private for the challenges they may face in public. Do your homework. Expand your horizons.

It's not about perfection, or ideological purity, or getting everything done. Most of the great issues have been problems that couldn't be solved, only worked on. Most successful presidents have had to balance the challenges of politics and policy.

Lesson: Judge our presidents, and yourself, based on how you play the hand you're dealt.

Boss's Bottom Line

Leadership is not about traits, magic, or perfection. It is about actions, hard work, and progress.

Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit is a collection of information and tools to help working supervisors do a better job. It's based on what Wally's learned in over twenty years of supervisory skills training. Click here to check it out.



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  • 2/21/2011 3:29 PM Derek Irvine Globoforce wrote:
    Great post, Wally. While I am Irish, I have great respect for the achievements of American presidents. One our team members recently tweeted a quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln (though I am not sure if it is apocryphal and which I am paraphrasing from memory here): "If I know a tree I must chop down will take 8 hours to complete, I sharpen my ax for 6 hours."

    It speaks well to your point on preparation.
    Reply to this
    1. 2/21/2011 4:39 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for the kind words, Derek. I can't tell you if that quote is actually Abe Lincoln or not. I've found that almost any pithy quote can be attributed to Lincoln, Mark Twain, or Einstein without anyone batting an eye.

      Reply to this
  • 2/21/2011 11:03 PM Kia Hadipour wrote:
    Your post was very informative especially to someone like me who has a very little knowledge about the history of America. I've so many times come across this statement about extremely talented people that "he is a born leader or, he is born to become a president..." Wouldn't you think for such a high rank as the President of the United States, the genius factor HAS to be innate already? or it's just true that ANYBODY could become the president of the U.S (which sounds like an outlier to the common positions I know of) only by hard work even if they didn't have it from the very beginning?
    Reply to this
    1. 2/22/2011 5:13 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for your comments, Kia. My reading of the history of US presidents takes me in the opposite direction. For most it's been a long and winding road to the office. If there is one thing that seems important (at least today), it's a burning desire to become president.

      Reply to this
  • 2/22/2011 1:59 AM Alex Bacchus wrote:
    In similar ilk to Mr. Irvine's comment, a quote not from a U.S. president but from Winston Churchill:

    "I do think unpunctuality is a vile habit, and all my life I have tried to break myself of it."

    Leadership is not about being perfect. It is the pursuit of betterment and progress. And without a doubt the ability to play the hand you are dealt. Nice post.
    Reply to this
    1. 2/22/2011 5:15 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for the kind words, Alex. Perfection is something that human beings, including presidents, simply don't do.

      Reply to this
  • 2/22/2011 8:01 AM Sera Shioda wrote:
    I cannot even begin to imagine the daily challenges of being a president. As if being a leader for a company, big or small, is not enough responsibility. U.S. being one of the most powerful countries in the world puts the president in a inconceivably tough position of being constantly judged on how he leads.

    I have always thought of how easy it is for people to judge others on choices in resolving problems, and what they would do if they were actually in that position- that person would probably crumble under the pressure of being berated for things beyond complete resolution.

    That is why I like how you said: "Most of the great issues have been problems that couldn't be solved, only worked on." Our the world is so complicated that our problems do not come with a mathematical equation to solve them. A great leader, I believe, has to understand what is beyond his/her control and make as much progress and do as much damage control they can.

    With the acceptance that things will never be the way that people of all different views will concur upon, a great president can make realistic goals and choices that will have better (not perfect) results in future issues.
    Reply to this
    1. 2/22/2011 5:17 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      You make a good point, Sera. It's easy to criticize from outside and being a public kind of leader, means that you're going to hear that criticism a lot.

      Reply to this
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