Leading in Uncertain Times: 6 Lessons From U.S. Presidents

Few leaders understand the perils of coping with a world in flux better than U.S. Presidents. As we commemorate Presidents’ Day, today’s leaders have much to learn from the timeless lessons of past presidents who exhibited true strategic leadership.

While each navigated distinct challenges, their mastery of the key disciplines of strategic leadership unites them as some of our country’s most memorable Commanders-in-Chief. These disciplines, distilled from research with more than 30,000 leaders across the globe, include the critical and complementary skills to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align and learn, as illustrated below.

Anticipate Change
President Eisenhower, in his final public speech as President, warned of the rise of the “military-industrial complex.” With his Army background and knowledge of the close links between the military and defense contractors, he saw the potential for corruption and wasteful spending. At the height of the Cold War, as the U.S. sought to maintain the world’s most powerful military, Eisenhower had the foresight to raise this issue to public consciousness. The debate over military spending continues to affect the political landscape to this day, though Eisenhower first spotted the issue more than 50 years ago. In a similar way, leaders must draw from their experience and insights to anticipate and prepare for impending shifts.

“Leaders should always consider their options, but have the guts to make a tough call.”

Challenge Convention
During the socially tumultuous 1960s President Johnson, a son of Texas and a proud Southerner, had to look in the mirror and challenge his own biases and those of his constituents as he began to change course on civil rights. It took personal and political courage to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To advocate for civil and voting rights, Johnson had to confront strong adversaries like George Wallace in the South and overcome deep-seated racial prejudice. All leaders can learn from Johnson’s ability to challenge convention and prejudices that perpetuate the status quo.

Interpret Signals
While President Nixon remains a controversial figure, his visit to China in 1972 was groundbreaking. Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, picked up signals that the People’s Republic of China, led by Chairman Mao Zedong, might be open to a degree of reconciliation with the West and made the interpretation that China might consider normalizing Sino-American relations. Communist China had viewed the United States as its greatest enemy, and the U.S. had refused to even recognize Mao’s government, yet Nixon saw through hostility and recognized a potential for mutual benefit. Nixon’s visit opened the door to renewed trade relations, creating strong economic ties that still exist today. Like Nixon, strategic leaders constantly scan for weak signals on the periphery and connect dots that others might not see.

Decide with Conviction
Ronald Reagan didn’t earn the moniker “the great communicator” for nothing. His famous speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987, in which he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” was made despite the strenuous objections of his top advisors in the State Department, many of whom thought such strong words would be an affront to the Soviet Premier. Reagan showed great courage in sticking by his decision when he could have easily shied away. Ironically, this debate continues today as strategists consider how confrontational the U.S. should be with Vladimir Putin. Leaders should always consider their options but have the guts to make a tough call.

Align Stakeholders
In August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded its tiny neighbor, the oil-rich Kingdom of Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush condemned this “naked act of aggression” and immediately went about assembling an international coalition to denounce the Iraqi dictator. Bush had spent years overseas working in various roles for the State Department, and he tapped into his wide network of international contacts, rallying key players and bridging differences for what he believed was a key opportunity to strengthen the international community. Most leaders don’t invest enough time or energy to engage their stakeholders early and often when mobilizing for change.

Learn From Failure
President Kennedy’s election in 1960 was accompanied by a wave of optimism. Yet mere months after taking office he became embroiled in the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion. Kennedy recognized failure as a source of innovation; when the Soviet Union shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba in October 1962, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy took an outside-in approach to the problem. Going against the advice of the Joint Chiefs to invade or launch strikes, he favored more nuanced measures that included a naval blockade of Cuba and secret negotiations to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. His cool thinking paid off and averted a possible nuclear crisis, teaching a powerful lesson about learning from mistakes.

While Presidents are confronted with historic political challenges, business leaders are also facing high-stakes scenarios presented by the intensifying VUCA landscape. The examples above illustrate just how powerful strategic leadership can be amid uncertainty and offer fundamental lessons for strengthening strategic aptitude.

The disciplines described above come from the book, “Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future” by Steven Krupp and Paul J.H. Schoemaker,

Steve Krupp
Steve Krupp
Paul S. Schoemaker
Paul S. Schoemaker

Steven Krupp is senior managing partner and Paul S. Schoemaker is an associate at Decision Strategies International, a consulting and training firm specializing in leadership development and strategy formulation. Learn more at DecisionStrat.com.


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