Leadership Attributes of Great Presidents Applied to Running Your Business

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a renowned historian who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her book on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. More recently she authored Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Mixing in her observations on both Presidents and their extraordinary leadership skills, she recently wrote an article that was published in Parade about the essential ingredients of great leadership.

As an aid for anyone running a business, I thought it might be valuable to list what Goodwin identifies as the 10 outstanding qualities that Lincoln and Roosevelt exhibited and to see if these same qualities could help you be more successful in leading your business to success.

Here’s the list, including my interpretations/paraphrasing plus direct business applications:

  1. The courage to stay strong – both Lincoln and Roosevelt overcame extreme adversity, refusing to succumb, staying steadfast in their roles. Business application:  Businesses, new or old, inevitably face moments when the challenge is extreme. Your mettle during these times will likely determine whether your business succeeds or fails.
  2. Self confidence – the Presidents’ personal strength allowed them to surround themselves with strong-willed, capable people who were never shy nor short on advice whether in agreement with their leader or not. Business application: The more qualified, engaged and vocal your key team members are, the more likely you are to be able to incorporate the best strategies into your action plans. This applies to partners, employees, key vendors and contractors and even vocal customers. It’s often said that the smartest business owners surround themselves with people who are even smarter.
  3. An ability to learn from errors – acknowledging missteps is critical in order for anyone to improve and enhance what they deliver as a leader. Both Lincoln and FDR paid attention to what didn’t work so they could avoid such errors going forward. Business application: What you do wrong when running your business is the proving ground for doing it right next time around. Business is an iterative activity. Try this, try that, see what works and what doesn’t, and ultimately, you’ll find that your failures guide you to your successes.
  4. A willingness to change – momentum is dangerous as a primary cause for next actions. If the environment or circumstances changed, both Presidents were willing to revise their views and plans. Business application: Business plans are never set in stone. They should be dynamic documents that allow you to rev up or down certain initiatives or even abandon some plans and embark on completely new ones if the marketplace realities demand it. Don’t ever hesitate to derail an old plan if it’s no longer in sync with your best business opportunity.
  5. Emotional intelligence – both Presidents respected their staff members and the realities confronting their constituents. This allowed them to be able to act compassionately. Business application:  Your business is made of people – those who run it, service it, finance it, buy from it. Be respectful of the needs and realities of your people and you’ll have the human factor as wind in your sails instead of something that foils your efforts.
  6. Self control – Rather than letting anger or impulses dictate their actions, Lincoln and Roosevelt exercised extraordinary restraint. They were deliberate in allowing themselves to cool off before reacting and stayed cool in the midst of extreme challenge. Business application: Mix a little “methodical” in with your “maniacal” passion and you’ll have a great combo. This approach will help you react to major events in the most clear-headed, effective way. Most of the time, there’s a solution that’s available as long as you’re calm and deliberate.
  7. A popular touch – these leaders had extraordinary senses of timing, enabling them to pursue their boldest initiatives only when public sentiment would enable the initiatives to have a chance to come to fruition. Business application: The more you endear yourself with your community, the more likely you are to enjoy new and growing business opportunities. Be involved and be a positive force in your physical or virtual community such as within the StartupNation online community and it will pay dividends.
  8. A moral compass – neither leader was willing to forego their sense of “right.” In spite of threats and guaranteed difficulty, Lincoln and Roosevelt stuck to what they believed in. Business application: As a leader of your business, you have the opportunity to make your work meaningful. The more you stick to what you believe is right and is consistent with your personal moral fabric, the more likely you’ll be able to maintain your passion for the business. It becomes an expression of you. This doesn’t mean you have to proselytize others, but instead simply stay true to yourself.
  9. A capacity to relax – Both leaders knew how important it was to become refreshed in order to lead vigorously. Relaxing, removing themselves from the fray with regularity was fundamental to their abilities to have energy, creativity, perspective and to be effective. Business application: To stay “on” you have to be able to turn it “off.”  Nobody can sustain an innovative, vibrant business if they themselves are personally exhausted and sapped of fresh thinking. Forcing yourself to get away, unwind and recharge is imperative.
  10. A gift for inspiring others – their tenures as Presidents saw some of this country’s most tumultuous moments. North-South conflict, economic desperation, global war – in each scenario, Lincoln and Roosevelt were each able to galvanize their countrymen and give voice and hope to a broad spectrum of the population. Business application: The more you can take your customers and team members to a higher level, the more you can add meaning, loyalty, positive word-of-mouth and patronage to your business. Lead by example, demonstrate your principles, go the extra mile and it will always pay off.
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