5 timeless words of career advice from former presidents

Before becoming the leaders of the free world, nearly every president had to work his way up the corporate ladder, learning plenty of lessons along the way.

Among the 44 people who have held the title of Mr. President, their career paths varied greatly, offering a vast amount of diversity in skill sets and talents. While our inaugural leader George Washington worked as a surveyor, Ronald Reagan was an actor, William Howard Taft was a lawyer and Barack Obama worked as an education consultant among other gigs.

Arguably, all would credit President of the United States as their toughest, most demanding role, since it provided them with helpful wisdom. Luckily for you, they can offer tough lessons from the oval office, giving you a bit of studying material to end your long weekend.

‘Think before you speak’

The first president of the United States, George Washington wrote a guidebook about public discourse and protocol, appropriately titled ‘Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.’ In here, he gives many points and perspectives on how to maturely and effectively handle yourself in corporate or professional settings.

In addition to recommending to keep your face to the back when you’re speaking and using positive body language, he also recommended thorough thought and consideration before speaking. It’s a rule of thumb likely ingrained into your psyche thanks to your parents, but one that holds true in all boardroom meetings or even digitally, in e-mail exchanges.

He wrote, “Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.”

‘Associate yourself with people smarter than you’

As an Army general, statesman and the 34th president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower had much experience both listening to elders and leading youngsters. Regardless of his rank though, he quickly learned the importance of the company you keep, as it shapes not only your reputation but your ability progress.

It’s not that you shouldn’t befriend the funniest person in the office since they will fill the sometimes mundane hours of a workday, but making a pointed choice to spend quality time with those you respect will feed more inspiration into your career.

Eisenhower explained in his book, “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.”

If you’re intimidated by scheduling a meeting with your CMO or your top executive because they may stump you with questions, Eisenhower has a solution for that, too. When you can’t quite rack your brain for the smartest retort, be confident in admitting defeat, since it illustrates your integrity and character. As he wrote, “Remember, ‘I don’t know,’ is one of the smartest things you can say, and once you do, you can find the experts you need.”

‘Take time to deliberate. Then go’

Especially when your industry requires a fast-paced, quick-witted and on-the-go attitude, you might feel the pressure of hastily decision-making.

When the time and client turnaround does allow though, soldier, statesman and the seventh president emphasizes the importance of careful consideration. Because the smartest solutions usually come from weighing options, identifying risks and estimating outcomes – regardless if you’re leading a war or creating an end-of-year strategy – it’s the ‘pause’ that can elevate your career.

Jackson was quoted in the book, ‘Supplement to the Courant’ also providing the advice for what to do once you’ve arrived at your choice: “Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”

After all, why wouldn’t you go full-force ahead in your presentation, the contract, or your proposal if you’ve actually taken the break you needed to gain confidence?

‘Your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing’

Ask your first boss at your internship or your brother’s friend who you find so utterly impressive. Chat with your mom, your dad, your sorority sister. Regardless of whose advice you seek, everyone will have a different view on what it means to be successful. As one of the most legendary and visionary presidents, our 16th leader Abraham Lincoln was ripe with profound insight, making his speeches timelessly quotable.

But one that should stick out in your mind as you map out your own pioneering path is to start from within. In a kind-hearted, pointed letter to a pal, Lincoln signed off with the following, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”

In other words: No matter what nuggets of wisdom you hear or find, maintaining a sense of self-determination will take you further than any other tactic or strategy.

‘Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence’

When you were first rejected for a role that you wholeheartedly thought you had in the bag, the sting surely isn’t pleasant. Though disappointment is part of the job searching and career-building tango, your ability to push past your shortcoming or downfalls is what will set you apart from others eying the same opportunity.

As one of the most infamous words from a president that you’ll often hear during college graduation speeches, lawyer and 30th U.S. president Calvin Coolidge speaks to the deep importance of stamina, regardless of what rat race you’re jogging.

It read, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb … Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

The odd truth of this popular quote is the original context is still being researched, even though it appeared on the cover of the program for his memorial service in 1933. Regardless if he said it in full or it was fragmented between a variety of speeches, the value remains the same: working tirelessly without giving up will extend your career more than anything else.

This is an updated version of a 2017 article.