Leadership Lessons From Warren Harding

August 2017

... And other unlikely presidential sources

Portfolio, a division of Penguin Books, has published a series of leadership tutorials based on such prominent figures as Queen Elizabeth I, Gen. George Patton, and Winston Churchill. A recent addition is Nothing to Fear: Lessons in Leadership From FDR, by Alan Axelrod (273 pages, $24.95). In lessons with titles like “Look Beyond Crisis” and “Strike the Right Tone,” Axelrod uses episodes from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life and excerpts from his speeches to illustrate important principles for managing large organizations. While few Presidents have faced greater challenges in office than FDR, a look back through history reveals that even the less successful ones can teach us something about leadership, if only in a negative way.

James Madison: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

In August 1814, with British invaders on the outskirts of Washington, Madison knew the city’s defenses were inadequate, so on the principle of “leaving military movements to military men,” he saddled up his horse and set out for the Virginia hills. Fortunately the British contented themselves with burning Washington’s public buildings and withdrawing. When the smoke cleared, Madison and his fellow federal officials returned.

Ulysses S. Grant: Never let your advisers rule you, unless they really, really insist.

When Grant’s Attorney General, Amos T. Akerman, ruled against an attempted railroad property grab in 1871, the nation’s robber barons pleaded with Akerman to change his mind. He refused, so they turned to Grant, who, under severe pressure from party bosses, reluctantly demanded Akerman’s resignation while praising him effusively, apologizing deeply, and offering him the judgeship or ambassadorship of his choice. Akerman declined the consolation prizes and returned to a lucrative private practice.

Warren Harding: Elections come and go, but friends are forever.

And if your friends are a bunch of crooks, you’re in big trouble.

Calvin Coolidge: Timing is everything.

If Coolidge had chosen to run for reelection in 1928, he would have ushered the nation into the worst depression in its history. Instead he is remembered as nothing worse than an aloof but tolerant chaperon with a flawless sense of when it was time to leave the party.

Lyndon Johnson: Humiliation is power.

LBJ often received reporters and staff members while sitting on the toilet.

Richard Nixon: Hush money—it’s the best investment in America.

If Nixon had provided adequately for the Watergate burglars, none of the subsequent scandals would have come out. But he was so chintzy that not only did the burglars themselves squeal, but their legion of co-conspirators realized that from then on, it was every man for himself. (Another lesson: If you’re planning something illegal, it might not be the best idea in the world to tape the conversation.)

Jimmy Carter: When all else fails, tell ‘em they’re crazy.

In July 1979 President Carter, unable to unify the country behind his energy policy, told the citizens of America that they were afflicted with a “crisis of confidence” (or “malaise,” though Carter never used that word in the speech itself). The following year a neurotic America acted out by voting Carter into retirement.

Ronald Reagan: Accept responsibility, avoid blame.

At the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan simultaneously admitted failure, apologized, deflected personal culpability, and appealed to America to move on, all with a single three-word phrase, “mistakes were made”—leaving Lincoln looking like a windbag in comparison with his 279-word Gettysburg Address.