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Lessons from the Top 5 Ranked Presidents

Posted on March 18, 2017 at 4:15 PM

The Presidents of the United States are ranked from time to time by historians, and four are always at the top - Washington, Lincoln and both Roosevelts. In the latest poll of historians just released by C-SPAN for the President's Day holiday, a newcomer has broken the top five - Eisenhower.

Each of the top-five ranked presidents had different leadership styles that still offer lessons to leaders today. Here is a quote from (or about) each president that captures an element of their leadership style, presented in order of rank by this latest C-SPAN poll.

#1 Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) - According to an 1883 biography of Lincoln: “If you want to find out what a man is to the bottom, give him power. Any man can stand adversity—only a great man can stand prosperity. It is the glory of Abraham Lincoln that he never abused power... When he had power he used it in mercy."* By exerting extraordinary powers in the name of civil wartime needs (e.g., suspending the writ of habeas corpus), Lincoln may have been the closest thing to a dictator the USA has ever had. Thankfully, Lincoln knew that great leaders wield power out of necessity, not out of desire. He was aware of the potential intoxicating and corrupting effects of power. Lincoln reminds us that good leaders view power as a useful, yet dangerous, tool that should be used for the public good, but never for personal gain.

#2 George Washington (1789-97) - Washington wrote in a 1790 letter: "My station is new... I walk on untrodden ground."** - As the first president, Washington was very sensitive to how his actions shaped the office he held. He knew that every time he bent a rule, he weakened it, and that every time he ceded authority, he made it harder for his successors to reclaim that authority. Washington reminds us that all leaders should think about how their actions will impact their successors' ability to do the job.

#3 Franklin Roosevelt - (1933-45) FDR's leadership style was as unique and confusing as it was effective. According to historian James MacGregor Burns, FDR led "by deliberately fostering among his aides a sense of competition and a clash of wills that led to disarray, heartbreak, and anger but also set off pulses of executive energy and sparks of handing out one job to several men and several jobs to one man, thus strengthening his own position as a court of appeals, as a depository of information, and as a tool of co-ordination; by ignoring or bypassing collective decision-making agencies, such as the Cabinet...and always by persuading, flattering, juggling, improvising, reshuffling, harmonizing, conciliating, manipulating."*** While FDR's leadership system looked chaotic, he must have been disciplined in fulfilling his duties as the center of the system, keeping it from spinning out of control.

#4 Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) - "I took Panama and let Congress debate that while I went ahead and built the canal."**** - This brag by Roosevelt said much about his leadership style. At age 42, Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest person ever to serve as president. His death at age 60 made him one of the youngest retired presidents to die too. It was almost like he sensed he had a limited time in office and life and wanted to get the most out of that time. As president, that meant Roosevelt sometimes took risks by acting before he had formal authorization and funding when he believed his actions would eventually be judged to be right.

#5 Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61) - Eisenhower shared this quote in a 1957 speech: "I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." ***** - Eisenhower served as a US Army officer for almost 40 years, starting as a West Point cadet and becoming the top Army general before entering politics to run for president. Eisenhower rose slowly through the Army ranks in a series of staff roles focused on planning, not combat. Those roles sharpened his managerial skills while also exposing him to various leadership styles of famous Army generals. When he rose to top leadership jobs himself, Eisenhower emphasized high-quality, behind-the-scenes planning over dramatic, personal leadership theatrics. While criticized as boring, Eisenhower's highly professional management style was also highly effective.

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Sources / Notes:

* This quote is from an 1883 biography of Lincoln by Horatio Alger Jr.. ** From a letter Washington wrote. *** James MacGregor Burns (1970). The Soldier of Freedom: Roosevelt. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 347–48. - **** Quoted from a speech Roosevelt made in California. ***** From a speech to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in Washington, D.C. (November 14, 1957), as cited in the Congressional Record.

Categories: People Leadership, Communication Skills