The Soul of America

Whether you are familiar with Jon Meacham, you may be familiar with his work. The Pulitzer Prize winner is one of America’s “explainers” of our history offering a needed context given what was going on at the time. He has written several biographies of presidents, including his most recent one on George H.W. Bush, as well as ones on Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and the relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill. He even spoke at Bush’s funeral at the behest of his wife, Barbara Bush. If I had to sum up who Meacham is – he is an astute student of history. And, he has many admirers including noted historians Walter Isaacson and Michael Beschloss.

I recently read his excellent book called “The Soul of America,” where he is his usual informative self. The subtitle is “The Battle for our Better Angels.” He notes we have had battles of trying to do the right thing throughout our history, yet sometimes it has been hard to work our way there. Here are a few examples:

During the 1920 and early 1930s, over 25% of the US Senate and over 100 members of Congress had an affinity for the KKK. This stunned me, as looking back we would hope that leaders would have seen the KKK for what it was. Yet, even today, we are seeing a rise of White supremacy with some comments being parroted by a couple of elected Congressional representatives. And, after the popularity of “Birth of a Nation,” a very racist movie, and the example of the Tulsa massacre and many lynching’s in the south, it should be less surprising. In fact, it took a couple of KKK leaders openly espousing violence toward Jews, that caused an upset stomach for some of the sympathetic legislators, and they started to distance themselves from the KKK.

He also noted that President Dwight Eisenhower was not too keen on Senator Joe McCarthy of communist witch hunt fame during the early 1950s. But, the president recognized that McCarthy had too big a following to be ignored. So, he tolerated McCarthy without actively supporting him. What was surprising to me is attorney Roy Cohn, who advised McCarthy, knew his boss tended to make things up and was reckless not doing much homework, which would eventually become a problem. By the time Joseph Welch, the US Army’s Chief Counsel famously asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” McCarthy was already beginning to fade. In fact, an earlier quote of Welch’s was also condemning of McCarthy’s clumsy efforts. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”*

Let me close with a quote from Eisenhower on leadership that is telling. Apparently, one too many folks was offering the WWII European Allied Commander advice. “Now, look, I happen to know a little about leadership. I’ve had to work with a lot of nations, for that matter, at odds with each other. And, I tell you this…you do not lead people by hitting them over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it is usually called ‘assault’ – not ‘leadership.’ I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion – and conciliation – and education – and patience. It’s long, slow tough work. That is the only kind of leadership I know – or believe in – or will practice.”

The book is a good read. I only mention these three examples, as I don’t want to give too much away. America’s history, with all of its warts must be understood. If we do not learn lessons from our history, we are destined to repeat our failures. Already, we are seeing a rise in White supremacy along with the untruthfulness of a demagogue who rose to the presidency before he was not reelected. Trying to convince people he was reelected is akin to the recklessness that is used to define Senator McCarthy. We must guard against such untruthfulness as people get hurt when they believe such.

*Note: Trusted newscaster Edward R. Murrow would prove to be McCarthy’s most ardent critic. One of his many quotes is “We must remember always that accusation is not proof and conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.”

That leadership thing

Just because someone is in a position of leadership it does not mean he or she is a leader. Leadership is earned. A person put in a position of leadership may have a brief honeymoon period, but it can be wasted in an instant.

The military has an unstated rule. The troops eat first. This is a terrific metaphor. They are doing the heavy lifting, so a leader will do what he or she can to make sure the troops are taken care of.

A few rules of thumb to judge what leaders looks like:

– do they defend their team members or do they remain quiet?

– do they throw people under the bus when mistakes occur?

– do they deflect credit to others or assume all the credit?

– do they hide from blame when things go poorly?

– do they treat people with dignity and seek input from multiple sources?

– are they cool under pressure which calms anxious followers?

– do they represent our better angels or our worst?

My son and I watched the excellent movie “Midway” about s highly pivotal naval battle in World War II – if the US lost, the Japanese would have more impunity to attack cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. A key part of the movie was the need to trust intelligence code breakers. Admiral Nimitz (the recently appointed Pacific fleet commander) visited the code breakers to confirm their confidence and methods, asking many questions. It helped him trust their input as a key reason for our success at Midway was we knew the attack was coming on the day it came.

Nimitz went to the sources. It should be noted these same sources told his predecessor of concerns in advance of Pearl Harbor. His predecessor did not heed their concerns and be more alert on December 7, 1941.

With the complexity of our world, leaders need to be editors of lots of information. There is a humility in knowing how much you don’t know. Be very wary of people in positions of leadership who convey a false sense of awareness. There is a Texas term for big talkers – they are all hat and no cattle. They have a big head, but don’t have many steers.

It should be noted an increasing number of corporate leaders are more introverted. The business is more complex and varied, so understanding the moving parts is important. I mention this as we should not assume someone who is more outgoing is a better leader.

We are craving better leaders. The better ones may be the ones who look less like the part.