On the third Monday of February, people around the United States close up shops, companies, and schools to honor the past presidents. As many of us celebrate Presidents Day, here are some lessons of leadership we can apply to our own careers even if we aren’t in charge of leading a nation:
On choosing your work friends wisely
“Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.”
— George Washington advised his young nephew in a letter during the American Revolution.
Being selective with your close work associates is a lesson Washington learned young. As a teenager, Washington copied down all 110 rules of “Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” an etiquette guideline based on French Jesuit rules. One of the lessons, in particular, appears to have stuck with him into adulthood. As Rule No. 56, advises: “Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.”
On forging your own path
“Conformity is the jailer of freedom, and the enemy of growth.”
— John F. Kennedy, the 35th U.S. president, warned in a 1961 address to the United Nations.
On finding purpose
“Piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
— Jimmy Carter, the 39th U.S. president, advised Americans in his televised speech about the country’s economic woes, which he attributed to in part to a “crisis of confidence.”
On how to hear feedback
“One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels. The thing to be supplied is light, not heat.”
— Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, advised a 1916 crowd in Pittsburgh not to take criticism personally.
On making do
“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. President, advised in his autobiography.
On why your commitment is key to your success
“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”
— Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, advised his friend seeking advice on how to become a lawyer.
On being brave
“I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
— President Ronald Reagan gave a speech after the Challenger space shuttle’s fatal launch explosion acknowledging the tragedy while offering hope to future space explorers.
On dealing with fear
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the nation’s 32nd president, reassured a nation going through the Great Depression in his 1933 inaugural address.
On the future
“Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose. I am resolved that we shall win the tomorrows before us.”
— Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech after being sworn in as president following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 that offered faith and hope to a shaken nation.
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