What past presidents can teach us about present-day leadership

For Presidents Day, we thought we’d explore what former American presidents can teach us about being leaders. Here are a few pearls of wisdom to think about during the holiday.

President Lincoln made time for humor and storytelling

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin speaks about President Abraham Lincoln’s knack for humor and storytelling in a talk at TED2008, where she explores not only Lincoln’s history, but also Lyndon Johnson’s, and ties in her father’s past passion for baseball.

After mentioning Lincoln’s passion for Shakespeare theater, Goodwin talks about his flair for drawing people in with his humor.

“But an even more important form of relaxation for him, that Lyndon Johnson never could enjoy, was a love of — somehow — humor, and feeling out what hilarious parts of life can produce as a sidelight to the sadness. He once said that he laughed so he did not cry, that a good story, for him, was better than a drop of whiskey. His storytelling powers had first been recognized when he was on the circuit in Illinois. The lawyers and the judges would travel from one county courthouse to the other, and when anyone was knowing Lincoln was in town, they would come from miles around to listen to him tell stories. He would stand with his back against a fire and entertain the crowd for hours with his winding tales. And all these stories became part of his memory bank, so he could call on them whenever he needed to. And they’re not quite what you might expect from our marble monument.”

President Kennedy owned his defeat

Michael Siegel, author of The President as Leader, a Senior Training Specialist at the Federal Judicial Center, and an adjunct professor at American University and Johns Hopkins University, spoke to The Washington Post about how President Kennedy didn’t back away from his failure.

“Think back to President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Kennedy went on national television and made a speech I don’t think we’ll ever hear again in our lifetime. I’m going to quote from it: ‘Ladies and gentlemen. Success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. I failed. Blame me.’ Do you know what happened to Kennedy’s popularity? It shot way up. People don’t expect perfection from leaders, they expect honesty.”

Presidents Bush and Clinton believe in humility

Former presidents Bush and Clinton were interviewed at the 2017 Graduation of Presidential Leadership Scholars at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

NPR reports that Bush said “humility” is the top presidential attribute, and that, “I think it’s really important to know what you don’t know and listen to people who do know what you don’t know.”

Reuters reports that Clinton also said, “If you want to be president, realize it’s about the people, not about you,” and that “You want to be able to say ‘things were better off when I quit, kid’s had a better future, things were coming together.’ You don’t want to say, ‘God, look at all the people I beat.’ ”

Although they didn’t say President Trump’s name, there’s reportedly been speculation about whether or not they were referring to him.