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Presidential Leadership

Lessons learned from the study of Presidential leadership

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The study of Presidential leadership is imperative. I use the term Presidential herein as a proper noun referring to the President of the United States. Perhaps more than any other conduct of inquiry, the study of Presidential leadership reveals powerful lessons regarding how to lead anytime and under any set of circumstances. That said, let me begin by stating unequivocally that this is not an article about politics, per se, neither present nor past. But it may have implications for the political choices you make. Rather, this is an article about what makes an effective leader when faced with the most challenging of leadership circumstances. The answer is not as complicated as you might think. Four simple qualities seem to predict success.

There are many ways to study leadership. Prescriptive maxims, historical reviews, empirical (observation) methods, and survey analyses are those most commonly used. Though I have studied neuroscience and clinical psychology during my career, I have also studied and taught leadership. Clearly effective leadership comes in many forms, but I have been intrigued by the notion there may be common denominators in effective leaders. My colleagues and I decided we would study leadership as it has been enacted from the most challenging leadership position in the world, that of the President of the United States, a position which possesses demands that include as well as transcend virtually all other leadership positions. It has been said that the job of the President is the most difficult job in the world. The noted author John Steinbeck once said, “We give the President more work to do than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear.” In that regard, arguably, the study of American Presidential leadership serves as a virtual proxy for all leadership roles, but especially leadership under stress and adversity.

In order to discover what makes an effective leader, using Presidential leadership as a proxy, we examined data on Presidential leadership obtained by C-SPAN. In 2000 and 2009, C-SPAN conducted their Survey of Presidential Leadership in which historians and experts in leadership rated U.S. Presidents. The surveys rated 10 qualities of leadership established by their expert advisory team, including each president’s effectiveness within the context of our nation’s changing expectations of the presidency.

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Four Qualities That Predict Success in Leadership

Analysis of the C-SPAN data (Everly, Smith, and Lobo, 2013) uncovered four qualities that predict success in leadership. Simply stated, our four predictive qualities of successful presidential leadership were: 1) having a vision for success, b) decisiveness in bringing that vision (mission) to life, 3) creating an environment of open, honest communications, and d) following a moral compass that yields trust. To further distill those four qualities into a cogent mantra, we might say there exists a promise that successful leaders must make and for which followers thirst: strength and honor. General George Patton once said the job of a leader is to actively lead with the goal of the mission in mind. It is not to lead passively so as to protect one’s job by avoiding failure. It is not to lead to achieve one’s personal goals or agenda. Exhibiting strength in leadership requires courage, however. Consonant with our distillation, Dwight Eisenhower commented that the supreme leadership quality is integrity and honor. Honor engenders safety and trust. It’s easy to follow someone who is trusted. All energies can be focused upon the mission. It’s hard to follow a leader who cannot be trusted as valuable time is wasted scanning for signs of betrayal and planning defensive maneuvers.

History teaches us that the four factors identified in this paper: 1) having a vision for success, b) decisiveness in bringing that vision (mission) to life, 3) creating an environment of open, honest communications, and d) following a moral compass are highly associated with successful leadership. In addition to our analysis of the C-SPAN data, investigations of leadership in life and death situations, performed at the United States Military Academy, reinforce the importance of strength and honor. Authentic leadership is the term used to describe leadership in high risk situations. It has been described by Thomas Kolditz (2007) based on work by Kolditz and Donna Brazil. Authentic leaders are confident, optimistic, and provide purpose, motivation, and decisive direction “in extremis” (highly stressful) conditions (strength). Authentic leaders must also consistently demonstrate high moral character and ethical reasoning (honor).

Five Critical Questions

Based upon the integration of our C-SPAN analyses and the observations of Kolditz and Brazil, it is possible to rate leaders with a simple, yet critical, set of questions that are reflective of the “promise” to lead decisively and with integrity.

The next time you are asked to choose a leader, ask the following questions:

1. Does the person demonstrate an optimistic, forward thinking, attitude?

2. Does the person motivate others to do their best?

3. Does the person act decisively and in a timely manner?

4. Does the person demonstrate honesty and integrity?

5. Does the person communicate openly, honestly, and in a timely manner?

It seems to me that over 200 years of history underscores the importance of these factors in predicting successful leadership. Thus, it seems reasonable for current and future generations to be so bold as to demand these things from our leaders. The study of Presidential leadership can teach powerful lessons about effective (and ineffective) leadership at all levels if only we are willing to listen and observe.

© George S. Everly, Jr., PhD


Everly, GS, Jr (2011). Building a resilient organizational culture. Harvard Business Review, online version, June 24.

Everly, GS, Jr, Smith, KJ, & Lobo, R. (2013). Resilient Leadership and the organizational culture of resilience: Construct validation. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 15(2), pp. 123-128.

Kolditz, T.A. (2007). In extremis leadership: Leading as if your life depended on it. NY: Jossey-Bass Publications.