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Lessons to be learned from American presidents

Posted: July 2, 2008 1:02 a.m.
Updated: September 2, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 

Just over four years ago, I wrote a column on leaders and leadership entitled, "14 Traits of Successful Leaders."

Between that time and now I have read many books, articles and columns on the subject of leadership.
While it is true that every successful leader has many traits, perhaps a considerable number beyond those 14 traits I previously wrote about, in the end there is, in my opinion, one that is more important, more critical, than all the others.

Doing research for this column, I decided to review those men who have held the office of president of the United States. All were good men, all were able, all had good intentions and all did their jobs to the best of their abilities. But many who held the office were no where near as successful as they might have been, despite their abilities and capabilities.

Yet some were more successful than others. They are remembered today for their successes even though decades have passed since they held office.

What made the difference? In my opinion, the successful ones had the ability to craft a successful mission statement, communicate it continually, and fulfill it, despite the obstacles involved.

As Abraham Lincoln took office in early March 1861, the nation was in chaos and combat started soon after. He crafted a simple mission statement for his term of office, which was simply, "To Preserve the Union." Those four words energized the northern states and kept the government and the citizens focused on the task at hand.

It was not an easy mission to fulfill. The nation stood divided, families torn apart, neighbors fighting with each other. There were heavy losses of life in the four years of fighting, something not seen before or since in our history.

The Battle of Gettysburg took place over three days in early July 1863 (145 years ago today) with over 51,000 casualties.

That was a hard fought and won battle, but it was not the bloodiest. On Sept. 17, 1862, 23,000 men died or were wounded at Antietam in a single day. In that time, the mass media was the single source of news, and the loss of life extended to the smallest hamlet of just about every state in the country.
Experts disagree on the total number of those killed or wounded in the Civil War, but the number of dead is estimated to be between 618,000 and 720,000. But because Lincoln had created something that every citizen could grasp, and because he communicated what he was trying to do, people worked with him to accomplish the task.

Other obstacles and issues to be dealt with as part of the greater war effort included determining appropriate strategies, international relations, production, finance, taxation, a draft, procurement and emancipation of slaves. The nation had never conducted a presidential election when the country was at war with millions of men under arms. Yet in the end, Lincoln prevailed, his mission finished.
Other presidents that have followed a similar course of action include Franklin D. Roosevelt (End the Depression followed by Win the War) and Ronald Reagan (Win the Cold War).

Candidly, campaign slogans, phrases or titles provided by a president often mean next to nothing (The New Deal, The Fair Deal, The New Frontier, The Great Society, Whip Inflation Now, The New Covenant) either at the time or in the hindsight of history.

The lesson is that people, whether they are citizens, soldiers, taxpayers or voters, need to be able to understand "what we are doing" before they understand or buy in to the "why are we doing this."
The lesson is not just for those running for office. The lesson is for leaders at every level in any organization. Every leader needs to develop a short, concise statement that explains "what we are doing" to gain the focus and support of those needed to complete the mission.

Kenneth W. Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums in Valencia, bringing business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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