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Learning Leadership from the Presidents

Posted on September 9th, 2009

I recently finished the very enjoyable read of David Gergen’s EyeWitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership in which he describes his work with Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. He now teaches leadership at Harvard so his book is particularly focused on lessons to learn from their divergent styles as well as their failures. Here are a few points he made that are particularly revelant to those of us in leadership. Lesson 1: Time for study and reflection are critical for long-term leadership. Richard Nixon –His years in the wilderness (after he lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1961 election) became one of his most productive periods in his life as he had time for reflection, study, and to develop a long –range view of world affairs that became a foundation for his presidency. He seized those years for personal growth and a springboard to serious, tempered, seasoned leadership. There is a time to withdraw and return. Lesson 2: Time to study history is essential to leadership Richard Nixon –He was one of his great qualities. He understood history’s importance to gain a broader perspective on his own times (He thought in terms of decades and centuries) and to find role models for action. “His capacity as a visionary exceeds that of other presidents in modern times was based squarely upon his understanding of history” (p.43). Lesson 3: Time to develop your emotional intelligence is vital to good leadership. Ronald Reagan — He was intelligent in the sense of being self-aware, self-regulated, and self-motivated. He possessed “a sunny confidence in the future.” He had a “talent for happiness.” He was comfortable with himself and steady in his core values. Reagan was also one of the most disciplined presidents he had seen in office. Lesson 4: Time to develop your preaching and teaching skills is well spent. Ronald Reagan – Don’t underestimate the importance or power of working on becoming a great communicator. He perfected his skills of speaking (e.g. using humor, stories, keeping it short, closing well) over many years of trial and error, knowing the power of speaking to leadership. He worked very hard at it, perfecting his natural talent. Lesson 5: Time for your interior life is a matter of life and death. Bill Clinton — Don’t rush to large, demanding leadership too early. Work on your interior life.  Gergen admired Clinton for many of his wonderful qualities, and considered him a great president. His downfall was ‘that his career had been so rushed; he has never had time to let roots grow in his interior life. He has spent huge amounts of time helping others, but has never taken the time to allow others to help him” (p.329).

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