Leadership, in both our personal and business lives, is often as difficult to define as it is to practice.
There is little doubt, however, that the role of a leader, or just a person trying to lead, can be lonely and isolating. Decisions made can affect many persons, and because we are human we sometimes err.
Learning from those mistakes is one of the keys to enlightened leadership, author and presidential historian Jon Meacham told several hundred Fort Worth folks who gathered recently to hear him speak.
Meacham was the featured speaker at an evening presented by the All Saints Episcopal School Curriculum Foundation. His topic was “The Art of Leadership.”
He is considered an expert in presidential history with best-selling books to his credit: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House; Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power; the President George H. W. Bush biography Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush; and, most recently, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.
Meacham mesmerized the crowd with his self-deprecating humor and his masterful sense of history, not only of this country but of the world. He spent 20 years on the Bush biography and delivered an insightful and moving eulogy at Bush’s funeral.
He warmed up the All Saints audience by admitting that fame does not come easy. It hangs with heavy mantle.
Seems he was walking down the street one day when a woman approached him and said she immediately recognized him. She asked that he wait right there while she ran to a bookstore to get a copy of one of his books for an autograph.
She returned with a book by John Grisham. A polite southerner, Meacham signed Grisham’s name.
When he told President and Mrs. Bush about the mistaken identity embarrassment, Barbara Bush was not moved.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” she said. “Poor John Grisham. He’s handsome.”
His humorous story about Sir Winston Churchill at a urinal will have to be yours to hear the next time Meacham is in our zip code. It was, he said, the Churchill story the crowd would recall from the evening.
He knew different.
The crowd left with his outline of the characteristics of leadership and his examples of presidents who embodied those characteristics – if not all, at least some. Most of those present probably dreaded the thought they might get stuck in the elevator with Meacham, faced with the challenge of saying something intelligent. His depth of knowledge was that imposing.
• Curiosity. He said the best leaders have a breadth of knowledge based on an insatiable curiosity to learn and keep learning. Thomas Jefferson drew from a lifetime of learning when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” even while writing at a desk built by slaves.
• Humility/Candor. It is vital that leaders keep pride in check and are honest. They must tell the truth because the public has no tolerance for lying and misstatement of fact. Our leaders lied about the war in Vietnam, for example, and the public ultimately knew it had been deceived. Leaders need to admit mistakes and learn from them. Meacham cited President John F. Kennedy who, after the embarrassment of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, sought guidance from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man he had mocked. Eisenhower told Kennedy he had not allowed enough debate and discourse with his staff and Cabinet before he made his decision. Next time around, when faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis, an enlightened and humble Kennedy held meetings lasting 13 days as he made decisions that kept us from catastrophic war.
• Empathy. As the walls of the Cold War collapsed and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev endured embarrassment and humiliation, Meacham recounted, George H.W. Bush found a way to help his Russian counterpart save face. There is an easy rule to follow here, Meacham said: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Simple enough to understand. Harder to do, whether in government or business.
My own addition would be that being endowed with common sense is vital to leadership at all levels.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org