The U.S. Constitution says very little about the powers of the presidency, but that did not deter George Washington upon taking office from establishing the position as one of considerable power. Most famously, he quelled the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, which tested the nascent federal government’s authority. Entrepreneurs often err on the side of keeping things casual, but that style of leadership can be self-limiting. As Washington demonstrated, effectiveness is often tied directly to the ways large and small that a leader demonstrates seriousness.
Though he shared much in common with his predecessors, including great wealth and a military background, Andrew Jackson was the first president who was not born on the Eastern seaboard. He used that fact to build a large following among voters. This came in handy when it came to governing: Jackson often bypassed Congress and appealed directly to the voters to promote his agenda.
No one doubts that Abraham Lincoln was an idealist. But in an effort to preserve the Union and end slavery, he often compromised on matters ranging from personnel (as chronicled in the recent Doris Kearns Goodwin biography Team of Rivals) to Constitutional principle. This is the hardest lesson for any leader to learn – to achieve progress, you often has to make choices that come uncomfortably close to violating your core beliefs. Knowing the difference between a necessary compromise and a dangerous one takes a special gift.
Teddy Roosevelt built his reputation as that of a reformer, issuing more executive orders than any president who came before him or any president who has followed him. This flurry of paperwork pushed forward ideas that were big and radical: Roosevelt attacked business monopolies, advocated for a robust foreign policy, and launched the modern environmental movement. One senses that he often embraced the concept of change for no other reason than that it was interesting to him. But in showing an openness to reform, he created opportunities for many innovators to put forward their new and meaningful ideas.
Woodrow Wilson was the first president to seriously how U.S. policy could best influence the world beyond our shores. In the same vein, business owners, should consider how they might take steps to strengthen not only their own companies but also their community or their industry.
Franklin Roosevelt restructured, more radically than any other president before him, the way the government worked. And yet he was able to sell the country on change in part because he was a strong communicator (and in part because, amid the Great Depression, the status quo didn’t look so good anyway.) Through fireside chats and other means, FDR set expectations and instilled in the nation a renewed sense of optimism. And he built enough good will that, when some of his programs floundered, the voters still maintained their trust in him.
Though he governed during the Red Scare, an era during which extreme political views were ascendant, Dwight D. Eisenhower was arguably the least partisan president of the modern era. He believed that the political parties should work together, and built an extremely effective working relationship with Democrats. He figured out a way to get people to work together, and got a huge amount of legislation passed – like the Interstate Highway System, which is still the biggest public works project in history.
Lyndon Johnson wanted to leave behind an impressive legacy of domestic progress and, in many ways, he did—passing historic Civil Rights and anti-poverty legislation. But though his passions lay in social progress, LBJ allowed himself to be distracted by the Vietnam War, and events beyond his control ultimately dictated the course of his presidency.
You can apply the lessons learned from Richard Nixon’s unprecedented disgrace to your company. If you make a mistake, admit to it—completely and without dissembling—as soon as possible. Your employees and customers and investors do not expect you to be infallible. But they do expect you to be honest. And if they discover that you have lied to them in one area, however small, that will in many ways overshadow whatever other successes you may have had.
Ronald Regan was called The Great Communicator for a reason; he was also a great salesman. Whether he was campaigning before a crowd of blue-collar voters or trying to nail down the vote of a Democratic congressman, Reagan was a master at emphasizing the benefits of his agenda (and glossing over the downsides) in highly personal terms. When you listened to him, you wanted to believe him.