In Ken Burns’ seven part documentary on “The Roosevelts” which focuses on Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor, conservative pundit and author George Will gives FDR high praise for galvanizing American industry toward building planes, jeeps, trucks, ships, tanks, guns, equipment, etc. for World War II. What may be less known, is FDR knew he had to allow the companies to make a profit to gain their full support. It also effectively ended the depression era as it got people back to work.
In this same documentary, Eleanor was asked to travel to the Pacific during the war to help the troops. Admiral Bull Halsey did not want her to come, as he saw it as a waste of time he could use planning. In her first twelve hours, he changed his mind entirely. Halsey noted she worked her fanny off visiting several hospitals, bases and going to several events. He noted the first lady visited every soldier and sailor in the hospital at bed side, asking their name, where they were from and if she could do something for them. As Halsey pointed out, these badly wounded combatants needed a mother to stop by and talk with them..
Dwight Eisenhower was getting all kinds of lessons from people about how to be a leader as president. Here was a man who led the Allied command and had to work with many countries and a variety of egos. Eisenhower told them leadership is not beating on your chest and using fear. Anyone can do that. It is gaining consensus toward a common goal. It is sharing your ideas and listening to theirs. They have to buy into the change or it will not be successful.
Although, LBJ can rightfully be criticized for our failures in Vietnam, along with JFK and Richard Nixon, he used his entire political capital and bully pulpit to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. He knew the time was now as well as knowing the Democrats would lose the south if they passed. But, he got them done noting if the presidency is not used for doing big things, what is it for?
Even Nixon with his Watergate scandal, made two significant changes that helped America. He broke the ice on relations with China starting much needed conversations between two world powers. The significance of this move cannot be overstated. And, in reaction to the pollution of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River causing it to catch fire along with Rachel Carson’s book and earlier Congressional testimony on “Silent Spring,” Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency.
Ronald Reagan was not perfect as no president is and the Iran-Contra affair is his albatross, but he made an ad lib during a speech in Berlin in 1987 that led to major change. He said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The Berlin wall would come down a few years later. Reagan almost did not say it, but knew instinctively the time was right.
Let me close with a story about a president of a company that I have used before. Paul O’Neill was made the new CEO of Alcoa, a company that was falling short of expectations. At his first press conference, O’Neill did not say the normal buzz word type things. He said he was going to make Alcoa the safest place to work. A financial analyst called his investors and told them to sell Alcoa stock. He later said that was the worst advice he ever gave.
O’Neill knew the only thing the unions and management could agree on was employee safety. Two weeks into his tenure a worker died in a tragic accident on the floor. He called in his direct reports and said “we killed this man.” I want to know in twenty-four hours why he died and how we can prevent future deaths. With that signal, communication up and down the lines improved, empowered employees starting sharing productivity and revenue enhancing ideas and the company took off.
Leadership can happen. Often it takes courage to stick your neck out and do something. All of the above folks also failed to lead on occasion and made some poor decisions. So, even today when we see leadership, we need to let them know we appreciate what they did.