Oswald Letter

Management Lessons from the Oval Office

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article that discussed President Barack Obama’s management style. Among other things, the article said the President likes to get deeper into the details than many of his predecessors. It also discussed how he uses debate-like techniques to drill into subjects, even having staff members take and defend positions that are contrary to what they believe. Interesting stuff. The article got me thinking about what we can learn about management from those who have sat in the Oval Office.

I’ve never had the privilege of meeting one of our country’s presidents before, during, or after he held the highest office in the land, so my observations are based completely on what I’ve seen or read. Politics aside, here are a few lessons about management that I think we can learn from those who have held the highest office in our land.

George W. Bush. Some people might believe that there wouldn’t be much about management that can be learned from our most recent president, but there is. He surrounded himself with very experienced and capable people. His team consisted of many people who had served in previous administrations. There is no substitute for experience — especially in difficult times. You might not agree with his politics or some of his decisions, but you must admit that he didn’t shy away from bringing in experienced leaders.

Bill Clinton. President Clinton, in addition to being incredibly intelligent, was a great communicator.  People could identify with him. He was capable of talking to a homemaker, a truck driver, or a college professor, and they all would walk away feeling like President Clinton understood them and their issues. It was a gift and it served him very well.

Ronald Reagan. He, too, was a great communicator, but there are two things that I think define Reagan’s management style. First, he had the ability to take very complex issues, simplify them, and then determine a plan that he would pursue tirelessly. That plan was simple and clear and could be understood easily by others, which allowed him to gain his constituents’ support. Second, was his “trust but verify” mantra. He would delegate, but he would follow up. Not bad management advice.

Jimmy Carter. Carter was criticized heavily as a manager. The knock on him was that he was too much in the details and couldn’t see the forest for the trees. When you hold the highest office in the land, you might not want to personally control the schedule for the White House tennis courts, as it was said President Carter did. Managers can’t do everything themselves. They must prioritize issues and allocate resources based on those priorities. And they must delegate and work through others to get things done.

Richard Nixon. The management lesson I think can be taken from Nixon’s presidency is that you must have trust. President Nixon was famous for his paranoia, which ultimately meant that he could not bring himself to trust even his closest advisers. It’s hard to lead a team if you don’t trust them enough to communicate openly with them. I understand that trust must be earned, but you must get to that level with those you surround yourself with or you must replace them. Nixon never fully trusted anyone, and it made him less effective.

Harry Truman. “The buck stops here.” Truman had that statement on his desk in the Oval Office. He understood that ultimately he was responsible for what happened in his administration — and even the country — and accepted it. He didn’t place blame or point fingers. If you’re in a position to manage others, you must accept the responsibility that comes with it. Truman did.

Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is said to have surrounded himself with very experienced and capable people. It’s the same lesson that I mentioned could be learned from George W. Bush. (Now there’s a surprise! Comparing Lincoln to George W. Bush.) But here’s the difference. Lincoln wasn’t afraid to bring on people whose views were very different than his own. In other words, he didn’t look for the best people that thought like him, just the very best people. If you’re confident enough to bring in the best and have open and honest dialogue, good things can happen. It’s a great lesson for any manager.

I’m sure there are dozens of other management lessons that can be learned from these presidents and the others who have sat in the Oval Office. If any come to mind, I’d like to hear ’em.

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