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Saturday, September 20, 2008

As a historian, I look to the past to help predict the future. And I am convinced that Americans should consider the leadership strengths of our most successful Presidents when deciding how to cast their ballots in November. Focusing on the qualities that have made some of our leaders exceptional provides a better perspective on our current candidates than what's often reported -- mistaken words, glib replies, fundraising abilities, and TV ads. Taking Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as guides, I've identified 10 attributes that distinguish truly great Presidents.


A President needs the ability to withstand adversity and motivate himself in the face of frustration. From childhood, Lincoln showed a determination to rise above the poverty into which he was born. Despite failures that would have felled most others, he never lost faith that if he refused to despair, he would eventually succeed. Roosevelt, by contrast, grew up with wealth, privilege, and love. His crucible came in a polio attack that left him a paraplegic at 39. While crippling his body, the paralysis expanded his sensibilities. He emerged from his ordeal with greater powers of concentration and greater self-knowledge. Far more intensely than before, he was about to put himself in the shoes of others to whom fate had dealt an unfair hand.


Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation. Lincoln placed his three chief rivals for the Republican nomination in crucial positions in his Cabinet and filled the rest of his top jobs with former Democrats. His cabinet sessions were fiery affairs, but they provided him with a wide range of advice and opinion. Similarly, FDR created a coalition of the New Deal into key positions as Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy. And for his Army chief of staff, he appoint George Marshall, because the straight-talking general was the only one to disagree with him in a meeting.


To lead successfully, you must be willing to acknowledge and learn from your mistakes. After the rout of Union forces at Bull Run, Lincoln stayed up all night writing a memo on military policy that incorporated the painful lessons he had learned. And when FDR concluded that a New Deal program was not working, he created a new one in its place, built upon an understanding of what had gone wrong.


Conditions change, and Presidents must respond. When was came, FDR made his peace with the industrialists whose hatred he had welcomed during the New Deal. He relaxed anti-trust regulations, guaranteed profit, and brought in top business executive to run his production agencies, aware that only with their commitment could we build the planes, tanks and ships we needed to win.


A President must encourage his closest advisers to give their best and remain loyal. Lincoln shared credit for his successes and shouldered public blame for the failures of his subordinates. FDR had a remarkable capacity to transmit strength to others, to make them feel more determined to do their jobs well.


Great leaders manage their emotions and remain calm in the midst of trouble. When angry with a colleague, Lincoln liked to write him a "hot letter", giving his emotions free rein. Then he would put the letter aside, knowing he would calm down and never send it. If he lost his temper, he would invariably follow up with a kind gesture. "If I was cross, I ask your pardon", he wrote to one of his generals. "If I do get up a temper I do not have sufficient time to keep it up". And on the Sunday that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Eleanor Roosevelt was struck by her husband's "deadly calm". While aides and cabinet officers ran in an out of excitement, panic and irritation, FDR remained at his desk, absorbing the news, deciding what to do next.


The best Presidents have an intuitive awareness of public sentiment, a sense of when to wait and when to lead. Lincoln once said that if he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation six months earlier, "public sentiment would not have sustained it." By following the gradual shift in the newspapers, by opening his office to conversations with ordinary people, by visiting troops in the field, he rightly concluded that by early 1863, the opposition was no longer "strong enough to defeat the purpose". FDR was said to possess an uncanny awareness of the hopes and fears of his countrymen and to know precisely when to move forward, when to hold back, and when to deliver one of his fireside chats.


Only strong leaders have the courage and integrity to follow their convictions when the risk of losing popular support is great. In mid-1864, top Republicans warned Lincoln that unless he renounced emancipation as a condition, the Confederates never would agree to peace talks, without which he had no chance of re-election. Yet Lincoln turned his party's leaders away without a second thought. "I should be damned in time and in eternity", he wrote, if he chose to conciliate the South over the slaves to whom he had pledged freedom. FDR chose in 1940 to supply England with what little America had in the way of weapons. In so doing, he drew the wrath of isolationist, liberals and educators. His own generals warned that he so risked American security that he might be impeached or "found hanging from a lamppost" if England fell and Hitler used our captured weapons against us. Believing England's survival crucial to the preservation of Western civilization, FDR was willing to take that risk.


FRD held a White house cocktail hour every evening. Its cardinal rule; Nothing was to be said of politics or war. Guests were to gossip, tell funny stories, and reminisce so that everyone could enjoy a few precious hours away from the pressures of the day. Lincoln possessed a life-affirming sense of humor and a legendary ability to tell long, winding tales that allowed him "to whistle off sadness". He laughed, he explained, so he did not weep.


One of the key qualities of a great President is his ability to communicate national goals to the people and to educate and shape public opinion. Both Lincoln and FDR conveyed their convictions with stories and metaphors, as well as a profound sense of history and a love of poetry and drama. When Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, the North was on the verge of winning the Civil War. Yet he avoided a triumphal message. Knowing that his next challenge was to return to defeated South to the Union, he suggested that the sin of slavery was shared by both sides and called on his countrymen "with malice toward none; with charity for all.... to bind up the nation's wounds." FDR's first inaugural address, delivered at the height of the Depression, conveyed a clear understanding of the difficulties the nation faced and projected such serene confidence in the fundamental strength of his country that he renewed the hope of millions.

I hope that as this campaign reaches its end, we can all move beyond the superficial "issues" that now play too large a role in Presidential politics. Let us look closely at the leadership styles of John McCain and Barack Obama and analyze their strengths and weaknesses in relation to our greatest leaders. It will take imagination to shift our present mode of thinking. Old habits die hard. But let us began.

(source: PARADEMAG by: Doris Kearns Goodwin. She is the author of "Team of Rivals":The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln". She won a pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her book on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.)
posted by infraternam meam @ 10:18 PM  
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Name: infraternam meam
Home: Chicago, United States
About Me: I am now at the prime of my life and have been married for the past 25 years. Sickly at times, but wants to see the elixir vita, so that I will be able to see my grandchildren from my two boys.
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