When Harry Truman was sworn is as the 33rd president the news was received with mixed reviews. Most who didn’t know him were fearful of this common man who appeared quite studious and simple. But those that knew him best knew that those were among his strengths. Three American Generals – Eisenhower, Bradley, & Patton were greatly depressed. Patton is quoted, “It seems very unfortunate that in order to secure political preference, people are made Vice President who are never intended , neither by Party nor by the Lord to be Presidents.” (p. 350). Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote to his son: “It seems a blessing that he is President and not Henry Wallace.” (p. 351). In addition to having only served as Vice President for less than three months, Truman would now serve the next 45 months without a Vice President of his own.
Truman’s upbringing and experiences in adulthood would serve him well as President.
As you read McCullough’s biography of Truman several leadership principles emerge during the years that Truman sat in the Oval Office.
1) He developed strong friendships before he got to the White House which would prove invaluable. Even Republican Senators were quoted saying,” We know we’d feel thrust into such a job, and we know Harry Truman would be the first one to help us.” (p. 360) If you are a second chair leader invest time and energy in developing relationships with your colleagues and other leaders. The networking will prove invaluable whether you continue to serve in the second chair or move into the lead role.
2) Truman was honest and transparent. The dramatic difference from Roosevelt’s ‘performances’ earned Truman unprecedented spontaneous applause at the close of his first press conference! You may not get applause from those you lead but they will be more likely to accept your leadership if they know they can trust what you say.
3) He made decisions. Some leaders can’t make even simple decisions forcing those they lead to spend time waiting instead of acting. A member of Roosevelt’s (and now Truman’s) cabinet said: “It was a wonderful relief…to see the promptness and snappiness with which Truman took up each matter and decided it.” Demonstrate your value and appreciation for those you lead by making the decisions they need in order to get moving. If you need more time or more information, tell them.
4) He didn’t sacrifice his family. White House Head Usher, J.B. West, said of the Trumans: “They did everything together – read, listened to the radio, played the piano, and mostly talked to each other.” Even though Truman was thrust into the presidency and could have been overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the office he was careful to spend time with his family. We all know business leaders and pastors who have neglected their families and poured themselves into their jobs. No job is worth the destruction of your family.
5) Truman did not show favoritism. Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote: “And then he was so fair. He didn’t make different decisions with different people. He called everyone together. You were all heard and you all got the answer together. He was a square dealer all the way through.” (p. 755) If you lead a team, or are part of a leadership team, you know how important it is to value the input of the entire team.
6) He checked his ego at the door. Again from Acheson: “He (Truman) was not afraid of the competition of other ideas…Free of the greatest vice in a leader, his ego never came between him and his job.” (p. 755) One of the qualities I appreciate about the team I serve with is that it is devoid of ego. Having worked on numerous teams I can’t stress enough how valuable of a trait this is.
I found McCullough’s Truman to be an eye-opening read. It was enlightening to get such an amazing look into the life and times of three presidents (Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower). I highly recommend this book – but be warned that at 900+ pages it is not an afternoon read!