Lessons in Leadership from Three American Presidents

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Executive Summary

This essay presents a model of effective leadership based on a four-part framework used to analyze the performance of three recent American presidents (Carter, Reagan, Bush). The author suggests that the framework can be used more generally by leaders and managers in public and private sector organizations to analyze their own performance in four critical areas of leadership: (1) policy (vision), (2) politics (strategy, implementation), (3) structure (organization, management) and (4) process (decision-making).

There is no doubt of the president's power. Though the office was created by men who "had their fingers crossed," hoping that it would not become too powerful (Koenig, 1995), it has evolved into a substantial institution of considerable power overseeing an enormous budget and a personnel system of some three million people. The president is able to shape the nation's agenda, gain regular access to the airwaves, command a huge military operation, and even oversee a nuclear arsenal. Often times Americans have a "John Wayne" image of the presidency--the notion that a man can ride into town on a white horse and correct all of the nation's problems (Smith, 1988). Justice Robert H. Jackson described the magnitude of the president's responsibilities as the concentration of executive authority "in a single head in whose choice the whole Nation has a part, making him the focus of public hopes and expectations. In drama, magnitude and finality his decisions so far overshadow any others that almost alone he fills the public eye and ear" (1952).

And yet, those who have served in that office have quite a different view of the extent of the president's actual power. A frustrated Lyndon Johnson once remarked, "The only power I've got is nuclear--and I can't use that" (Time, 1968). Harry Truman, talking about Eisenhower, said, "He'll sit here and he'll say, `Do this! Do that!' and nothing will happen. Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the army. He'll find it very frustrating" (Neustadt, 1991: 9).

Besides the constitutional provisions of separation of powers and checks and balances, other factors can frustrate presidential hopes. The political realities of congressional power, interest groups, the media, and the electorate itself are extremely restrictive, as well. Both the Supreme Court's forcing Richard Nixon to surrender the Watergate tapes and the Congressional impeachment proceedings of both Presidents Nixon and Clinton are practical examples of constraints on executive power.

Business executives can learn a great deal about both the potential and limitations of leadership from the experiences of American presidents. All leaders, including presidents, must overcome many obstacles in fulfilling the responsibilities of their office. Modern presidential experience, however, shows that by mastering key components of leadership, presidents can overcome the constitutional and political limitations on their power and lead the nation with resolve. While business leaders may not face the same kinds of constitutional limitations on their power, they do meet other obstacles when carrying out their responsibilities. The following are four elements of successful leadership specified by Ben Heinemann and Curtis Hessler in their book about the Carter Presidency, Memorandum for the President (1980):

* policy: envisioned future, vision and mission, goals;

* politics: strategy, execution, implementation, persuasion;

* structure, management, internal organization, delegation pattern;

* process: decision making, conflict management.

In other words, an effective president, or any other leader, has to enunciate a clear vision (policy); has to develop a strategy to implement that vision, including a persuasion or influence strategy (politics); has to avail himself of an effective management support system and efficient organization (structure); and has to use effective decision making techniques while managing conflict among his own staff (process). …