Monday, February 16, 2009

Presidential Leadership

With all the talk in the last several months of presidents and their capacity to lead, it is no surprise to see who landed on top of C-SPAN's survey of Presidential Leadership. Yes, once again, President Lincoln takes home the top honor. (For more on President Lincoln's leadership, see the collection of Lincoln's Lessons over at Leading Blog)

Here are the top 10 presidential leaders according to the collective wisdom of the historians in this survey group: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Jefferson, Eisenhower, Wilson, Reagan.

Three things interest me in the survey. One, it intrigues me to see some presidents rise (Grant, Clinton, Kennedy) and fall (Wilson, Cleveland, Carter) over time. It is clear that the passage of time allows us to reevaluate leadership, put it in context, and decide again on the value of various characteristics. I suspect this is what allowed the historians to better appreciate Clinton's relations with others and his overall vision and what will likely allow us to give a fair shake to the contributions of George W. Bush, much the way people have come to now view President Truman.

Secondly, these characteristics used in the survey are a good measure of executive leadership (with my interpretation in italics):

-- Public Persuasion (Communication, consensus building)
-- Leadership in Crisis
-- Economic management (Fiscal discipline and competence)
-- Moral Authority (Ethics, culture, character, guidance)
-- International Relations (Relationships)
-- Administrative skills (Management)
-- Relations with Congress (Relationships)
-- Vision / Setting an Agenda
-- Pursued equal justice for all (Ethics)
-- Performance within context of the times (Rise to the challenge)

Thirdly, on this President's Day, it is interesting to see the cream rise to the top. Lincoln received top marks for leadership in crisis, moral authority, vision, equal justice for all, and performance within context of his time. Washington was on top in economic management, moral authority, international relations, and admin skills. Between them, they have set the bar high for other Presidents and for that matter, all leaders. So you see, this is not just Presidential's Leader Business.

Photo courtesy of


John Bishop said...

Col. Tom,

Thanks for the timely reminder of our contry's best leaders and the importance of time in judging them. It helps demonstrate that leadership is not a popularity contest.


DoryDee said...

Hi Tom

Great write on Presidential leadership. Yes, leadership accountability is a continuum in any type of enterprise.

The actions of leaders do shape the course of events during their tenure and after they are gone. Hence, it is only logical to have their leadership assess on-going even at their death.

A President's poor grade presently may very well turn into a high grade in years to come. Why, the past always influence the present, no doubt about that.

Leaders must never take this position lightly for their actions for ever will be evaluated. The books on any leader good or bad are never sealed. Current leaders beware!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts so well. You have motivated me to response.