The Accidental President – Part 2

In 1930 – after being re-elected as presiding judge (similar to being a county executive) of  Jackson County, Missouri -Truman set his sights on statewide office. He wanted to run for governor in 1932 but the democratic machine selected another candidate. His fortunes changed in 1934 when – at the age of 50 – the party bosses picked him to run for U.S. Senate which he won easily.  McCullough writes (p. 215) “His diligence was noteworthy. Most mornings he turned up in his office so early – about seven – and so in advance of everyone else it was decided that he should have his own passkey, reportedly the first ever issued to a senator.” Truman worked hard – and quietly. He attended his committee meetings and listened closely to every testimony.  To his senate colleagues Truman  was “”go-along, get along Harry…but he was not someone to be taken seriously.” (p. 220)

Truman won a bruising re-election battle against Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark in 1940. Truman’s major accomplishment in the senate was when he was appointed to chair the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense program to scrutinize defense-related expenditures as new military camps were being built across the country. Under Truman’s leadership more than $250 million was saved on construction costs alone (this was 1941!). Eventually, this committee would issue over 50 reports – all of them unanimous. Their investigations kept turning up something called the Manhattan Project. When Truman raised the issue with Secretary of War Stinson he was told that it was a highly secretive matter known only by 2 or 3 people. Truman accepted his explanation and would not learn more on the mysterious project until he was president.

Truman’s move into the White House came about following Roosevelt’s re-election to an unprecedented fourth term. In a rather bizarre series of events, Roosevelt dumped his sitting VP, Henry Wallace. At the nominating convention Roosevelt seemed unable to choose a running mate. Of Truman he said “I hardly know Truman.” Four years earlier Truman had opposed Roosevelt’s nomination for a 3rd term on principle. But Truman was his choice. Roosevelt’s health was failing and it was widely assumed that he would not live through another term. As expected the democratic ticket easily won election in 1944. The two rarely spoke. Truman maintained his old senate office which gave him easy access as he presided over the senate but kept him away from Roosevelt. Truman met with Roosevelt only twice, besides cabinet meetings. Roosevelt died on April 12. Truman had been vice-president for less than 90 days!

Three leadership qualities emerge during this period of Truman’s life. Truman demonstrated intense loyalty to his principles and his friends. He accepted the decision of party bosses not to run for governor and then to run for senator because he was a loyal member of the party. He opposed Roosevelt’s 3rd term and the president’s later attempt to stack the court based on his principles (even though they conflicted with the party’s position).   Truman demonstrated  his loyalty to his friends by the fact that he maintained an office in the senate building once he was vice president so that he could be close to his former colleagues and be directly involved in senate activities. Truman also demonstrated an unusual fairness in politics. His leadership of the special committee was fair to all witnesses and committee members and was admired by senators on both sides of the aisle. Truman worked hard. He was a disciplined man who studied hard in order to know the background behind legislation. He was well prepared for every meeting and followed through on every assignment.

Three leadership lessons: As you lead it would serve you well to be uncompromisingly committed to your core values and principles. Let them guide your decision making and your leadership of people. Be careful to keep the tasks before you from running ahead of the relationships you are in. Maintaining those relationships go in every direction – upward with those you report to, side-to-side with your colleagues, and downward toward those you are leading.

You will find that people are more willing to follow your leadership if you treat everyone – not just those you are working directly with but all those you have contact with – fairly.That means everyone in your organization, church, or business from paid staff to volunteers to vendors.

Working hard seems like an obvious leadership quality but its worth mentioning.  Get your work done on time. Keep your promises. Do your homework. Be prepared for meetings or when you speak and teach. Paul’s words are helpful: “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ.” Colossians 3.23-24

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