Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

Failures in Leadership

When it comes to posting about Jimmy Carter — Nobel Peace Prize winner, home builder, human rights advocate, international statesman — I could have gone in many directions. In light of his recent cancer diagnoses, I could have focused on his positive, post-1980 accomplishments, and may have gotten a lot of positive comments and referrals. Instead, I feel compelled to talk about his greatest failure: his leadership during his tenure as the 39th President of the United States.

Before I go on, I have to say it’s really unfair for me to criticize others for poor leadership. I have practically no leadership abilities at all. I’ve proven time and time again that this is a skill or talent that I simply do not possess, and almost every attempt I’ve made to take leadership of anything has been a fairly abysmal failure. However, I think I can recognize good leadership when I see it. I’ve known a lot of good, and even great, leaders personally, and through careful observation of their methods, I think I have a fair bead on what makes a good leader. I’ve also known a lot of horrible leaders, and am fairly certain I know what poor leaders lack.

Any post criticizing Jimmy Carter would also be unfair if it did not include a disclaimer statement about “level of difficulty”. Carter was elected President in 1976, a period of great internal strife in the U.S. President Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1973. America’s most divisive and most embarrassing confrontation — the Vietnam War — ended in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon. The Cold War’s nuclear arms race was well into its fearful Mutually Assured Destruction phase. Inflation was at a troubling 12%, and the nation was in a depressing funk barely masked by the revelries celebrating our nation’s 200th birthday. Carter was entering into a losing proposition, it would take immense skill to turn the ship of state around.


Yeah, times were GREAT!

Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter, during his tenure as President, was a pretty poor leader.

Of course, that’s not particularly insightful. Folks have been saying this for 35 years, Jimmy Carter has taken quite a bashing from all sides since 1980. If he hadn’t been so successful in his post-Presidential career, he’d be nothing but an entry on a list between Martin Van Buren and Calvin Coolidge: barely remembered unless you went to Carter High School or your commute took you over the Carter Bridge. I’m glad he went on to do great things after his presidency, he’s probably one of the most ethical men to ever hold the office, and he deserves better than a minor footnote in a history textbook. So how did an otherwise good man fail to be an effective leader?

In my opinion, one event, more than any other, illustrates exactly why Carter was such a bad leader as President. That event was his infamous Malaise Speech, delivered to the nation via broadcast television on July 15, 1979. This was a speech that, although initially receiving a favorable reception by the American people, would go down in infamy as the worst speech ever given to the nation by a seated President. This was a speech that would become so reviled, it not only resulted in the loss of the White House to the Republicans in 1980, it most certainly caused the death of American progressive politics.

But wait, something here doesn’t quite compute, does it? How could a simple speech ruin a Presidency and kill a political movement? Speeches are nothing, really, just air exiting through a larynx, magnified by microphones and amplifiers. Most people, even then, rarely listen to political speeches, and of those who do, few even remember anything about them. Throughout American history — over 400 years if you include the colonial period — only half a dozen or so political speeches (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, etc.) have entered into the national consciousness. It’s certain that dozens upon dozens of Presidential speeches quite literally sucked, full of triteness and pandering and even lunacy. Did any of them derail a presidency?

No, and this speech, itself, did not derail Carter’s. What killed his presidency, and what marked Jimmy Carter as a terrible leader during that phase, was he felt that the nation actually needed a speech to solve its problems. That was the fundamental mistake, the fundamental error, the fundamental misunderstanding of leadership that Carter had during that period. What he did was deliver a speech as the solution, rather than delivering a speech to communicate the solution. 

Not a great idea.

Not a great idea.

So many people in positions of authority try this tactic. These folks think that they can inspire people by words. They’ve heard the lore of those half-dozen cool American speeches, or have seen Patton, Braveheart, Henry V, or even Independence Day, and think “ooh, that’s what I need to inspire my troops, a good speech!” Well, no, nothing can be farther from the truth.

My first encounter with a real leader was my Boy Scout scoutmaster. He was a quiet, soft-spoken guy. I can’t remember his speaking voice, honestly. But all the kids loved him because he did stuff. We always had stuff to do, every meeting was full of activities, and our camping trips were chock-full of things to do. His job moved him to second shift, and we got a new scoutmaster. That one was a chatty guy, and the absolute worst scoutmaster. Activities dropped, camping trips dropped, and I dropped Scouts entirely.

Later, I worked at an apple orchard. The owner was not necessarily soft spoken, but he was a great guy. He motivated us to work hard, not through his words, but because he was a hard working guy. If you were employed by him, you would be ashamed to be a slacker because he worked so hard.

I would see other good leaders who displayed good leadership because they loved what they did, or they took the time to teach those under them, or they took bold moves, or they were simply good at their job. They were leaders because they did stuff, not because they talked about stuff. It’s not even about caring for your people — there is no doubt that Jimmy Carter cared about the American people — it’s about recognizing that doing is a prerequisite to leading. 

If Carter had focused more on getting things done as President, he could have made all the crappy speeches in the world and no one would have cared. But he felt the people needed a speech, and history has proven that was a bad choice. Fortunately, Mr. Carter would go on to do plenty of good things in his post-Presidential career, and now he is well respected by many. But for one, brief time, when it was needed the most, he had the wrong idea of what true leadership actually is.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.


I didn’t bring my camera when I visited the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. All photos used in this post are public domain and hosted on Wikipedia Commons.

Jimmy Carter National Historic Site

Character Above All Essay on Jimmy Carter

Jimmy & Roslyn Carter Work Project at Habitat for Humanity

Google Map to JCNHS

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Charisma is My Dump Stat

Ever since I was a young pup, growing up in the Western Massachusetts confluence of mill towns and dairy farms, people routinely sang the praises of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “He saved the country and the people” was the mantra. If you were a blue-collar worker, FDR was a hero. If you were a farmer, FDR was a hero. If you held degrees in the arts or sciences, FDR was a hero. His name was always spoken with reverence. “He got us out of the Great Depression”. As a kid, I never understood it, but it was taught to me from a very early age. Actually, “taught” may not even be the operative word here, it was almost genetic.

This reverent view was especially held by those who actually lived through the Depression. My grandparents – disinterested in politics otherwise – loved FDR, as did their brothers & sisters, family friends, and others of the same generation. My parents’ generation, mere tweens during the 30’s & 40’s, also spoke lovingly of the man. It’s only now, with my grandparents’ generation is 20 years dead and my parents’ rapidly disappearing, that FDR is receiving critical attention by the general public.

I find this utterly fascinating. Sure, pundits & partisans would complain about the economics of the New Deal and the court packing scandal, but FDR had to be dead 60 years before the common man started questioning his Presidency and leadership. That’s almost three generations! I can’t think of anyone short of George Washington and perhaps Thomas Jefferson who escaped such criticism for so long. The people of FDR’s time had to basically die before public opinion turned against him. Today, we decry the previous loser the day after Election Day.

How in the world does this happen? How is it even remotely possible that any leader can earn such true devotion amongst his people? His wasn’t based on fear, nor was it based on indoctrination (contrary to right-wing conspiracy theorists). The devotion FDR enjoyed was real, and true, and long-lasting. This is the real story of FDR: not the impact of his policies but the power of his charisma. Utterly fascinating!

I have many flaws. Perhaps the most striking one is my near-total lack of charisma. I’m not particularly likable, and have virtually no leadership skills. I couldn’t convince people to escape from a burning building. If I was at a picnic and implored people to not eat the botulism-tainted potato salad, a score of ambulances would be needed to cart away the doubled-over masses. To me, strong & genuine leadership qualities are as alien as an iPhone to Neanderthals. That is why I find FDR so fascinating. His charisma is akin to string theory: practically unknowable.

Here’s my own take on why Roosevelt inspired such devotion: he had the “perfect storm” of confidence, communication, competence, and empathy. His family, especially his mother, Sara, gave him a good education and instilled in him a measure of self-confidence absolutely required of a good leader. FDR was a great communicator. His speeches are the stuff of legend and they were delivered, not as oratory, but as conversation, meaning they were genuine. Was FDR competent? Sure, you could say his policies weren’t necessarily wise, but he got them done. People respect people who get things done, action is rewarded far greater than thought or bearing. And FDR did accomplish an awful lot in his 12 years as President.

So that leaves empathy. Empathy is the capacity to care about your fellow human being: to see, understand and relate to other people and their troubles. In the beginning, FDR (like most bluebloods) didn’t have much in the way of empathy. He was “upper crust”, raised in the bubble of Hudson Valley prestige and private school. He was not fit to lead the U.S., at least not in a manner to receive such a tremendous amount of public adulation. But something happened that gave him the empathy he needed to be one of the top five Presidents in history. That something? Polio. To alleviate the pain of polio (or perhaps Guillain-Barre syndrome), FDR would visit Warm Springs, Georgia. There he’d meet poor farmers and others trying to live in impoverished conditions. It’s there he learned to empathize with the common man, and where he gained the final skill required to be a strong leader.

It’s both sad and relieving that presidents like FDR are far and few between. On the one hand, we could certainly use more competence in our nation’s capitol. We are certainly sick and tired of politico-speak (the near opposite of  good communication). And empathy? If there’s a skill that’s dead in Washington, it’s empathy. That’s why our government is failing us, that’s why Congress has minute approval ratings, why our President — like the one before him — barely holds 50%, why no one trusts the courts and dissatisfaction rules the land.

But on the other hand, imagine what leaders like FDR can do. He inspired such huge devotion, devotion that lasted for decades, can you imagine what would have happened if he wasn’t an honorable man? Well, carnage, that’s what. If history has taught us anything, it’s “beware the charismatic man.” It’s the people who inspire loyalty and devotion in others who are the most dangerous.

We got lucky with FDR. We may not be so lucky with the next one.

[I did not own a camera when I visited Hyde Park. All photos are in the public domain and pulled from various sources, including those links given below].



Home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Historic Site

FDR Presidential Library and Museum

FDR’s Ties to Georgia (University of Georgia site)

American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches

Google map to FDR’s home

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What Is Leadership?

A walk through the maze of walls comprising FDR National Memorial is a welcome, quiet respite from the crowds at the National Mall in Washington, DC. The memorial’s design is interesting: it’s a series of four small plazas, each representing one term of FDRs presidency. He served 12 years in the nation’s highest office, longer than anyone ever before, since, or seemingly forever (thanks to the 22nd Amendment).

I don’t think you can doubt that those were the hardest twelve years in this nation’s existence. The Great Depression was the deepest economic catastrophe this nation has ever seen, and the Great War was the biggest geopolitical conflict the world has ever seen. These were tremendous challenges, and spawned tremendous change in this country. One steered us towards military power and global influence, the other steered us towards progressivism and social justice. In today’s highly polarized political environment, you probably think one is good, and one is bad (which is which depends totally on your point of view). Regardless, those twelve years undoubtedly shifted the path of the United States for at least 65 years, and perhaps more (depending on how we weather the current terrorist, economic, and environmental crises).

Anyway, as I write this essay about FDR, I find myself reflecting not on these matters of politics and FDR’s rewriting of the American resumé. Instead I find myself reflecting on a quality that even his enemies agree FDR had in spades: leadership.

I like to think I know a lot of things. More accurately, I like to think I’m capable of knowing a lot of things. If I put my mind to it, I can read and research and question and experiment and try most things, and come to a pretty solid understanding. But if there’s one thing that eludes me, and will continue to elude me to the end of my days, it’s leadership. I’ve worked and played under some great leaders, whether it was the farmers I worked for as a boy or teachers I’ve learned from in college or team captains on the playing field, but never understood how they were effective leaders. I’ve also tried to act as a leader, take charge of a situation or a group or a team, and failed poorly at every opportunity. I can’t even get a group of co-workers to meet up for Happy Hour (unless, of course, I’m buying). I think I recognize leadership when I see it, but I can’t quantify it, or define it, or explain how some people have it and others don’t, and in no way at all can I replicate it.

Is it charisma? Charisma seems to attract a following but, by itself, can’t sustain one. Followers, at least the smart ones, will flee in the face of failure, and then all you’re left with are the sycophants, the incapable, and the unstable.

Is it believing in people? Maybe, because people will gravitate towards those who put trust in them. But, again, by itself it’s not leadership. Face it, some folks are not worthy of trust. Good leaders have to always be on the lookout for that knife in the back.

Is it determination? The pharaohs were determined to make their great pyramids, but I doubt the slaves who labored under then would call them “leaders”.

Is it understanding humanity? Maybe, possibly, probably. That would explain why I’m so horrible at it, for I often fail to understand that complicated topic. A lot of good leaders started in the trenches with the troops, or on the assembly line, or playing shortstop. They work with folks and understand folks and then lead folks. But FDR was one of the bluest of blue-bloods. He was born into privilege and stayed there, yet still was inspiring to the country.

Maybe (as lame as it sounds) it’s just something you’re born with, like blue eyes or a musical ear or general athleticism. I do suspect it’s something that is not easily taught in a seminar or gained from reading a book. The few books on “leadership” I’ve come across read like leavings of the the rest of those infinite number of monkeys who didn’t write the complete works of William Shakespeare. Corporate America is full of three-day seminars on the topic, but Corporate America as of late is full of terrible leaders who’ve made terrible decisions and led their companies and countries to ruin. I’ve seen good leaders in the corporations I’ve worked in, but these were also folks who didn’t learn how to lead at some symposium. These folks had it in their genetic makeup long before they completed their first job application.

There is one thing I do know about leadership: I know what it is not. Leadership is not authority, and if there’s one thing I abhor, it’s authority without leadership. There are folks who use their power, earned or appointed, to bully or brag or taunt or inflame or bloviate or take their underlings down in the misery or failure of their own incompetence. These aren’t leaders, they are petty fools. Authority may be a handy thing in a leader’s toolkit, but it is not leadership and must not be confused with leadership.

Looking back at FDR’s legacy, it’s easy to see he had both authority and leadership. It’s not just because we won the war against Nazi aggression and Japanese imperialism, it’s not just because we emerged from dark times stronger and more powerful than ever before, and it’s not just because we kept our dominant position for about 60 years after his death while moving forward on his grand vision. It’s because, at the end, for a couple of generations after his death, millions of Americans respected and revered the man. If you had talked to anyone from that era, most of whom are now dead or dying, you’d have heard reverence in their voice. They respected the man, felt motivated by his radio broadcasts, felt inspired by his iconic rhetoric. This generation of Americans, called by some The Greatest Generation, really loved the guy and carried themselves forward in life inspired by his leadership. There are few Presidents, past or present, who inspired the masses during their terms in a way that FDR did.

Nowadays, right-wingers and Libertarians tear apart FDR’s legacy, and I can sympathize. It seems that the progressive agenda, taken too far, acts more like an albatross than an eagle. It seems to weigh us down instead of making us soar. Or maybe we’re just doing it wrong, I don’t know if I can say either with certainty. I can say that, regardless of whether FDRs legacy has helped or hurt this country, he was a strong and effective leader and probably the most inspiring President within his own time. The people who were there would have told you so. Some of them are still out there: find one and ask.

[Archival pictures on this post courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. I don’t have many specific photos of the FDR Memorial, but you’re welcome to peruse my copyrighted photos of Washington, DC here.]



Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

The Wilson Center Essays on Leadership

Google map to FDR Memorial

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