Leadership

Leadership & President’s Day

Leadership and Presidents Day

Since we’re headed into President’s Day weekend, I thought I’d re-post a piece that examines the leadership characteristics of the two Presidents for which the holiday is celebrated; George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. It’s an astute person who studies history and then applies the lessons learned to their present day life. In the text that follows I’ll look at the unimpeachable character of our first President, and the unparalleled resolve of our sixteenth President.

If I were to take a casual poll asking readers to name our two greatest Presidents it would not shock me at all if Washington and Lincoln would show very well among their peers. However, what I find so interesting in comparing and contrasting these two great men is that while they were both men of staunch character, willing to do the right thing regardless of opposition or public opinion, they were also men who rose to their place in history by traveling very different paths.

Washington was seemingly blessed with success at every turn, while Lincoln failed much more often than he succeeded during his lifetime. Even during Washington’s early years where he was often considered to be brash and impetuous, he was nonetheless considered a bright light and incredibly successful for his age. He consistently sought out positions of leadership & responsibility, and rarely met with any set-backs to speak of.

Born in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was a surveyor by trade, joined the Virginia militia just prior to the French and Indian War, served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, was commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and was the first President of the United States (1789-97). His rise to success was nothing short of meteoric, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel by the age of 22. His transformation from an ego-centric young man to a polished and savvy leader was nothing short of remarkable.

Even though Washington was both personally and professionally polished, becoming well known for his economic, military, business, and social success, it was his character that he was most admired for. The arrogance of his youth had been transformed into a true and unwavering confidence in his own judgment, underpinned with an implacable foundation of principled moral conviction. George Washington was a man of integrity beyond reproach. This made him a man worthy of respect, and a force to be reckoned with. It is important to realize that he did not just espouse a vision, but that he was willing to put his life at risk to defend his vision, and live his life with the singular pursuit of seeing his vision become a reality.

Washington’s life gives testimony to the fact that great leaders can accomplish great things. It is important to remember that Washington was not merely a man among midgets who garnered his success because of the ineptness of his contemporaries, rather he was someone who rose to the top of a peer group comprised of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and John Hancock among others. Perhaps the greatest testimony to his character was Washington could have been a king, but chose not to. His interest was not in acquiring power, but to serve the best interests of a new nation.

By contrast, for the majority of Lincoln’s life he was largely regarded as a person of little consequence, if he was regarded at all. While he sought positions of leadership and responsibility, he was met with continuous challenges and defeats. Interestingly enough, many of Lincoln’s perceived successes ended in failure.

Simply put, Abraham Lincoln is one of the most inspirational case studies in examining the leadership traits of persistence, commitment, determination, passion, conviction, and overcoming failure. There is perhaps no greater lesson the world can offer in overcoming failures and understanding the value of persistence than what can be learned from looking at the life of Abraham Lincoln. Born into poverty, Mr. Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout most of his life. He twice failed in business, lost eight different elections and suffered a nervous breakdown. The following bullet points summarize Lincoln’s path to the White House:

  • 1816: Lincoln’s family lost their home and he had to quit school to support them.
  • 1818: His mother passed away.
  • 1831: He failed in business.
  • 1832: He ran for state legislature and lost, also lost his job, and while he wanted to go to law school he couldn’t get in.
  • 1833: He borrowed money to start a new business and was bankrupt by the end of the year. He spent the next 17 years paying off the debt.
  • 1834: He ran for state legislature again and this time he won.
  • 1835: He was engaged to be married and his fiancé died.
  • 1836: Mr. Lincoln suffered a total nervous breakdown and spent six months in bed recovering.
  • 1838: He sought to become speaker of the state legislature and was again defeated.
  • 1840: He sought to become elector and was defeated.
  • 1843: Lincoln ran for Congress and lost.
  • 1846: He ran for Congress again and this time he won.
  • 1848: Lincoln lost his re-election race for Congress.
  • 1849: He sought the position of land officer in his home state and was turned down.
  • 1854: Lincoln ran for the US Senate and lost.
  • 1856: He sought the Vice-Presidential nomination and lost receiving less than 100 votes.
  • 1858: He ran yet again for the US Senate and lost.
  • 1860: Abraham Lincoln was elected as the sixteenth President of the United States.

It was in fact Abraham Lincoln who later said: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” Lincoln was obviously someone who was more focused on pursuing his goals than being guided by a fear of public opinion or of failure. Thomas Edison failed more than 1000 times before he successfully invented the light bulb and he was later quoted as saying: “Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

The bottom line is that great leaders are not easily deterred. While most professionals don’t naturally associate the words “success” and “failure” as having anything to do with one another, under the right circumstances failure is absolutely the best experiential learning tool available. In fact, I would go so far as to say failure is an essential element of becoming successful. You can easily validate this premise by placing any individual under the scrutiny of the following litmus test…if you show me a professional who has never experienced failure I’ll say that person is likely an underachiever who either hasn’t tried hard enough or is very new to the world of business. Great leaders don’t fear failure, rather they fear the loss of what could have been achieved had they not had the courage to press on.

The lessons here are simple…be a person of action, stay passionately convicted to your vision, make sure that your motivations and decisions are based upon a deeply rooted sense of character and integrity in both your personal and professional conduct, and be willing to take great risks in order to insure that your vision becomes a reality. While this brief post cannot even come close to doing justice to the incredible lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I do hope it provides some inspiration and some guidance as you move forward on your own leadership journey.

Thoughts?

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20 Comments

    Meredith Bell

    February 15, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    I loved your summary of these two key people in our nation's history, Mike. Your last two paragraphs are filled with absolute truth and wisdom. I'll do my best to make sure everyone reads this exceptional post. It stands out as one of the best I've ever read on leadership.

    Bill Bliss

    February 15, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Mike,

    Good post – thanks. I was not aware of all the failures that Lincoln incurred during his life. It sheds a whole new light for me on how he persevered throughout his life – a great example. I particularly enjoyed your closing point regarding how important it is for a leader to have his/her motivations and decisions based on character and integrity. The higher a leader climbs, the more essential their character will be in maintaining their leadership role. Those with strong character will continue to succeed, make right decisions most of the time, develop other leaders and leave a good legacy; while those with weak character will no doubt fail due to a whole host of reasons, mostly focused on themselves and not on others or the organization they were called to lead.

    Bill Bliss

      mikemyatt

      February 15, 2010 at 8:46 pm

      Bill and Meredith:

      Thank you for your comments and kind words. Washington and Lincoln provide two exceptional case studies in leadership. Anyone serious about refining their leadership skills would do well to study both of these leaders in far more detail than what was presented in today's post.

    […] “It is an astute person who studies history, and then applies the lessons learned to their present day life.”- Mike Myatt […]

    mary

    February 16, 2010 at 1:09 am

    Thanks for such an inspiring and thoughtful post! It helps us to push on with our dreams 🙂 You can never fail until you stop trying!!

    Keith

    February 16, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Great post – also huge ups to Dave Brock for sharing on his twitter account… always solid. Thanks for taking the time!

    Keith

    barrymapp

    February 28, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Did Washington really have no 'failures'? It just seems unlikely that his "transformation from an ego-centric young man to a polished and savvy leader" that was nothing short of remarkable occurred without the learning opportunities that arise when things do not quite go the way intended. Could it be that his "failures" occurred in a rapid condensed form when in his late teens/early twenties in part of his life that is less well documented?

      mikemyatt

      February 28, 2010 at 6:12 pm

      Hi Barry:

      Sure…your premise strikes me as reasonable. Everyone has struggles and I'm sure Washington faced his fair share of challenges as he advanced toward the White House. My point was simply that his challenges were not of the same magnitude, duration and scale when compared to Lincoln's journey. Thanks for the comment Barry.

        Anonymous

        February 21, 2011 at 8:17 am

        Hi Mike,

        Your broader point is well taken – Washington did have a lot more going for him than Lincoln did.

        But once the Revolutionary War began, Washington was daily faced with incomprehensible challenges. Almost no gun powder. No navy. No standing army. No clothing for the army. No shoes for the soldiers who walked through snow with their feet wrapped in rags. Thousands claimed as victims of small pocks.

        I can hardly comprehend the dedication of the soldiers who pushed on through all that.

        There’s also a similarity between these two presidents that’s worth pointing out: Both had no qualms about getting their hands dirty with their followers.

        As regal and dignified as Washington was, he would often work in the fields with his slaves. He oversaw and directed every detail of Mount Vernon management with a strong preference to go out and see for himself so he could understand what was really going on. Same during the War.

        The campaign that finally got Lincoln the nomination and elected to the White House was a campaign where he took similar control over the planning, delegation and execution.

        Too many leaders can’t be bothered to go to their own “front lines” and get their hands dirty. So they sit in the board room making decisions based on information far removed rather than firsthand knowledge.

        Dov

        Anonymous

        February 21, 2011 at 2:12 pm

        Hi Mike,

        Your broader point is well taken – Washington did have a lot more going for him than Lincoln did.

        But once the Revolutionary War began, Washington was daily faced with incomprehensible challenges. Almost no gun powder. No navy. No standing army. No clothing for the army. No shoes for the soldiers who walked through snow with their feet wrapped in rags. Thousands claimed as victims of small pocks.

        And Washington’s handling of all this was remarkable.

        There’s also a similarity between these two presidents that’s worth pointing out: Both had no qualms about getting their hands dirty with their followers.

        As regal and dignified as Washington was, he would often work in the fields with his slaves. He oversaw and directed every detail of Mount Vernon management with a strong preference to go out and see for himself so he could understand what was really going on. Same during the War.

        The campaign that finally got Lincoln the nomination and elected to the White House was a campaign where he took similar control over the planning, delegation and execution.

        Too many leaders can’t be bothered to go to their own “front lines” and get their hands dirty. So they sit in the board room making decisions based on information far removed rather than firsthand knowledge.

        Dov Gordon

          Mike Myatt

          February 21, 2011 at 3:33 pm

          Hi Dov:

          You’re correct that my post definitely worked off a broad contrast of the overall lives of these two presidents. That said, your points are also well taken. What Washington accomplished during the Revolutionary War was nothing short of remarkable. In fact when you study that conflict in great detail, Washington’s Army lost the overwhelming majority of the major battles they engaged in, yet still won the war.

          You’re also correct that Washington and Lincoln weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. A mistake that people often made with Lincoln was to underestimate him in this regard. Lincoln spent less time in the White House than most presidents as he was always in the field observing things first hand. His willingness to interact with his General’s, take a personal interest in them, and fire them if they didn’t get the job done that had a huge positive impact on the Union Army during the Civil War.

          Likewise, Washington was famous for leading from the front. Perhaps the most remarkable example of this came in a battle that saw him single handedly charge the British advance while his army was retreating in panic. The British troops were said to have actually have stopped their advance to applaud Washington’s bravery.

          While these are just a few examples that support your insights, there were numerous others as well. Thanks for sharing Dove.

    Briankibby

    February 21, 2011 at 10:57 am

    My son, Harrison (11), will love this post as did I. Thanks, Mike.

      Mike Myatt

      February 21, 2011 at 3:40 pm

      Hi Brian:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this piece. I’m afraid far too many of our youth only see President’s Day as just another day off from school. It’s encouraging to see that Harrison is a history buff. He’ll no doubt become a true Renaissance man like his Dad. Thanks again for stopping by Brian.

    Mike Myatt

    February 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Thanks Poul. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found it to be helpful.

    Mike Myatt

    February 21, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Thanks for the inspiring comment Juan. Your recognition of what this country affords is what has made, and will continue to make you a success. Thanks for stopping by Sir.

    Mike Myatt

    February 21, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Hi Ada:

    Great observations that I wish more of our elected leaders would take to heart. Thanks for sharing.

    […] Lincoln. It is an astute person who studies history and then applies the lessons learned […] N2Growth Blog You can also visit Onebudget.com for Personal Finance Posted in Business | Tags: Leadership, […]

    […] The lessons here are simple…be a person of action, stay passionately convicted to your vision, make sure that your motivations and decisions are based upon a deeply rooted sense of character and integrity… read the article […]

    TJ Trent

    February 18, 2013 at 3:50 am

    Great article as usual. Leaders must have integrity of character and never quit!

      Mike Myatt

      February 18, 2013 at 11:25 am

      Thanks TJ – Happy President’s Day and thanks for your service.

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