3 U.S. Presidents, One Legacy of Leadership

Over the past five years, I’ve had the pleasure of writing a series of historical books with Brian Kilmeade of Fox News: George Washington’s Secret Six in 2013, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates in 2015, and most recently, Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans. During our immersive research for each book, we explored personal letters, dispatches and official documents from the three American presidents covered in the series. We found that while each president had his own individual leadership style today’s leaders can learn from, they also shared a consistent pattern of executive thinking. Below are the leadership values epitomized by these three of America’s earliest presidents. 

Be present but have a clear vision.

Washington, Jefferson and Jackson each demonstrated a clear sense of both the present mission as well as future goals. Washington wanted independence and a populace and economy that could be largely self-sustaining. This was one of the reasons he held off attacking British-occupied New York despite desperately wanting to take the city; he did not want to take unnecessary risks to his own soldiers, the civilian population, or risk damage to Manhattan’s infrastructure and shipping yards.

Jefferson recognized the importance of safeguarding American shipping rights in international waters, but he also understood that the way he responded to the terror threat from the Barbary rulers would cement the young country’s international reputation as a weak or strong power.

And Jackson realized the pressing need to defend New Orleans against a British attack while also understanding that the enemy intended to use the city as the jumping-off point to occupy the rest of the continent and choke out the eastern states.

In other words, each leader operated from both an immediate as well as projected perspective. He understood the cause as well as the effect, the risk as well as the reward, the cost as well as the payoff of his predicament. Even though America was the underdog in each case, the action each man took succeeded for two reasons. The first was that each president had a clearly articulated objective (establish, protect, and defend the United States and its interests); the second was that each president practiced a leadership style that inspired confidence.

Lead with integrity.

Washington was slow, methodical and deeply thoughtful. His calm disposition and natural humility inspired profound trust in the people serving under him, but his tireless dedication to the cause made no one question his passion. They knew his decisions were rooted in a firm conviction as to was right, rather than any kind of personal ambition or ego.

Delegate among your team and trust their decisions. 

Jefferson was a man of profound thinking and tremendously broad understanding. His knowledge of each issue facing his administration was immense; yet  he still relied on the people around him who had more firsthand experience. Given the great distances at which his admirals and consuls were working in North Africa, Jefferson knew he had to trust their judgment and abilities to manage individual situations. As a result, Jefferson was not afraid to delegate and quickly replaced ineffective leaders with more competent ones. Because he trusted his leaders, they were able to work more effectively and freely to find swift and decisive solutions.

Walk the talk.

Jackson liked to be in the thick of things. He was not a micromanager—he did not interfere with the details of how his generals conducted the battalions under their command—but he was always willing to roll up his sleeves and join in the work alongside his men, encouraging them, celebrating with them and even suffering alongside them. He paid their wages out of his own pocket when money from the government didn’t come, and when an ill or wounded soldier lacked a horse, Jackson often walked so that the other man could ride. He was fiery and zealous about whatever cause he was called to lead, and he inspired a similar passion in his men, who knew their leader would never ask of them something he was not willing to do himself.

In this manner, three distinct, vastly different men emerged as precisely the right kind of leader the country needed to help guide it through the tenuous early years of its republic. Clarity of mission, foresight, and strong interpersonal relationships were the hallmarks of three of America’s earliest and most influential presidents. Though the specific circumstances each man faced were vastly different, their governing principles were the same. No matter the challenge, the best leadership articulates a vision, generates trust and creates a legacy.  No matter the challenge, the best leadership articulates a vision, generates trust and creates a legacy.

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Don Yaeger is a motivational speaker, longtime associate editor of Sports Illustrated magazine and author of Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans. Read more blogs from Don HERE, or click HERE to listen to his interviews on Leadercast NOW.

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