9 Traits of a Great Leader: How Many Boxes Do You Check?

Drawing Inspiration from Presidential Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin at Vistage Annual Conference

At Vistage, we understand better than any other organization how leaders learn and develop.  As a Vistage chair, I had the chance to hear Doris Kearns Goodwin speak about her recent book Leadership in Turbulent Times at the Vistage annual board conference in San Diego. Her speech and work inspired me to share these nine leadership traits.

9 Traits of a Great Leader: How Many Boxes Do You Check?

Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were four American Presidents who faced difficult and challenging realities. And although they had distinctly different personalities (Lincoln was born with a profound empathy and gift for language, while Teddy Roosevelt had a ravenous curiosity and photographic memory), Presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin identified leadership traits they shared.

1. A Long-Term Commitment to the Ability to Grow

In the farming society of the time, Lincoln’s love of books was considered laziness. But his intense desire to learn drove him to read every book he could find. Literature gave him a vision for an alternative future. Teddy was self-reflective and had the ability to learn from youthful mistakes—at 23, he learned the necessity of teamwork after accomplishing nothing in his state legislature because he dominated conversations. FDR was stricken with polio in his 30s and was told upper-body strength was all that was left to him. So he crawled around on the floor and found the possibility of joy and pleasure in new ways, along with an empathy for those who had been dealt an unkind hand by fate.

2. The Self-Confidence to Surround Oneself with Strong-Minded People of Different Experiences and Temperaments. 

FDR surrounded himself with a competition of ideas. His wife Eleanor questioned his assumptions. He also required female reporters to cover his press conferences, because he believed they would ask more questions. As Kearns Goodwin wrote about in Team of Rivals, Lincoln invited rivals Seward, Chase and Bates into his cabinet.

3. Ability to Inspire a Common Purpose and Mutual Caring within One’s Team

Lincoln showed empathy, humility, kindness and consistency with his team. He shared credit for success with his colleagues and made it a point to compliment people. And FDR used a baseball analogy, telling his team that you can’t hit each time you come to bat, but we seek the highest possible batting average.

4. A Readiness to Take Responsibility for Decisions and Blame if They Go Wrong

Famously, Lincoln made the monumental decision on the Emancipation Proclamation alone. He accepted no more debate after listening to advisors for months.  But because of this pre-work, no one issued a public disagreement.

5.Ability to Control Unproductive and Negative Emotions

FDR and Lincoln would both vent emptions in writing—then destroy it and start again. Lincoln advocated writing a “hot letter” and not sending it. FDR would exorcise his anger with a fiery first draft for his fireside chats, and continue with several more drafts until the tone was right.

6. Makes Self Accessible Beyond the Inner Circle

LBJ went before Congress when the Civil Rights Bill was stalled, and in the first six months in office, he invited every single Congressman to dinner in groups of 30. Lincoln visited the front lines of the Civil War many times and took time for ordinary citizens.

7. Understand that Changing Times Demand the Ability to Change Course

With the outbreak of World War II, FDR changed his relationship with the business community, becoming much more positive and encouraging.

8. Communicate Simply and Directly Through the Use of Stories and Leverage the Technology of the Time

Lincoln shared stories, because they are easier to remember than facts and figures. The technology of his time was to print his speeches in full in newspapers and pamphlets. Teddy was known for his pithy statements, like speak softly and carry a big stick. FDR entered the radio age with his fireside chats. Even though he wasn’t a great speaker, he pictured his audience as a single person, like a girl at a lunch counter.

9. Find Time and Space in One’s Schedule to Think, Relax and Replenish Energy

Although it ended badly for him, Lincoln attended the theatre more than 100 times during the Civil War. Teddy relaxed with reading and physical challenges. During a walk, he would declare he must go over an obstacle, not around it. For instance, taking clothes off to swim a river!  FDR would throw overnight cocktail parties during the war with one rule: you can talk about anything but the war.

These four Presidents all developed ordinary qualities to an extraordinary degree through the application of hard work. As leaders today, we can apply these nine leadership approaches to our own lives and experiences.