Further Thoughts on the Four Humble Items


  •       Yes, I know the video was eight minutes, not five. My fault. Still, I hope you enjoyed it.
  •       Have you come up with your four items yet? Mine: a copy of Huck Finn, photo of family and friends (preferably while camping, hiking, fishing, or at the Chicago Art Institute), my baptismal verse scratched in my handwriting, and a Johnny Cash album called Ballads of the True West. If you’re having trouble with your list, I completely understand—hard to narrow it down! My own belief is that these four humble items show my approach to leadership is historical and reflective (Finn); emphasizes relations (the photo); spiritually based (verse); and includes both the positives and negatives of life (Cash).
  • ·         I think Harry Truman’s presidency (1945-1953) is one of the most important in the last 100 years. So many of the things that we now have, especially in foreign policy and national security, resulted from Truman’s years in the White House and, most specifically, his actions as a leader. I say this not as a Democrat or Republican, just as an American who happens to love history.
  • ·         I write a monthly column for a print publication entitled The Carmel Business Leader. In my most recent column I focused on Truman and the difficult situation he faced after Franklin D. Roosevelt died. With little or no involvement in anything as Roosevelt’s Vice President, Truman was tossed into the Presidency. Still, Truman recorded a shocking degree of achievement as President. In my column I wrote the following: “Truman showed that in a new leadership opportunity, you can be horribly positioned but happily prepared.” What accounted for Truman’s effectiveness as a leader in the Presidency?
  • ·         My answer: his preparation prior to the Presidency. For one, Truman tried a lot of things in his life, many of which were failures. The key, however, was that because of his brightness and curiosity, Truman learned from each experience. Second, Truman loved reading—as you know—and he learned from his reading, particularly history. Third, Truman relished people and learned extensively from his relationships. Fourth, Truman took immense pride from his love of family and the place of his family. They gave him an inner steadiness, sense of grounding, and overall confidence. Add all these up and you have “happy preparation.”
  •       You can draw a line connecting Truman to the current War on Terrorism. By this I mean that Truman in 1946-1950 established many of the organizations and policies that have been key to the American response to September 11. Among them are the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the use of comprehensive working papers as expressions of policy, and the use of domestically oriented laws (Smith Act) designed to address national security concerns. Also, you can make a good case that Truman’s pursuit of the Cold War carried with it an implicit “long-war” feature embedded in the War on Terrorism. In this light, it’s interesting to think about Barack Obama compared to the first post-Truman president, Dwight Eisenhower. Like Obama, Eisenhower had to decide whether or not to continue with his predecessor’s national security policies.
  • ·          A leadership quality that Truman excelled in after he became president was in selecting team members and delegating to them. It’s a leadership trait of Truman’s that really didn’t come into view prior to 1945. And yet, it now stands as one of his most outstanding leadership qualities. Among his most effective selections and uses of team members were George Marshall and Dean Acheson. That’s not to say that Truman was flawless in team selection and delegation; he had his problems like the rest of us. On the whole, though, he was highly effective in this area.
  • ·         One of the best books I’ve read is David McCullough’s biography of Truman. In the spirit of Truman’s plain-speaking persona, it’s entitled simply Truman. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. Heads-up, though; I’ll warn you now that the book is over 900 pages long. For me, it was 900+ pages of sheer pleasure. Also, for you fans of David McCullough, I think it’s one of his best works…and that’s saying something. One of these days I’ll re-read it and post a review on My Library Bookshelf elsewhere in the My Writings section of my website. Go there if you want to read other book reviews I’ve written.
  • ·         Harry Truman is one of my most popular historical topics for my leadership seminars. Do you have any guesses as to why? I’ll offer out a few of my own guesses here: a lot of people identify with his down-to-earth ways; they tend to sympathize with his failed often/finally succeeded story; and they like his open appreciation of his Midwestern background. In some ways, I sense there is considerable overlap between the popularity of John Wooden and Harry Truman in my seminars. Of course, that doesn’t pertain to Truman’s skill in profanity and Wooden’s lack thereof!
  • ·         I have a technique in my leadership seminars that I call “real-time scenarios.” This technique places each participant in an actual decision-making situation of a historical figure. The participant confronts facts and trends that unfold week-by-week, in some cases day-by-day or hour-by-hour, in the situation, the same ones faced by the historical figure. He or she must choose, decide, and defend their choices/decisions. It’s a very popular feature of my work. I bring this up to say that one of my most highly praised real-time scenarios is about Harry Truman and the Recognition of Israel. I use it for leadership and delegation and for leadership and team management. Great stuff. You’ll be shocked by the twists and turns.
  • ·         Astounding fact about Truman—he had absolutely no idea about the Manhattan Project (the making of the atomic bomb) while he was Vice President under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And yet, after Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, it fell to Truman, the new President, to deal with handling the final stages of the project and, of course, the decision to use the weapon against Japan. One of the most important decisions in world history had to be made with no previous preparation or involvement by the decision-maker. Truman said consistently in the years after that it was the absolute right decision; taken all together, I agree. Now that I think of it, I’d love to do a leadership seminar around this topic and chain of events. I think it would pertain very well to project management and leadership and to decision-making and leadership.
  • ·         Another thing that Truman’s experience helps illustrate and depict is the issue of succession in leadership. Think about it for a second—Truman follows one of the most significant presidents in American history and has to find a way to develop his unique team, vision, and operation. That’s succession, all right. His story (the key sub-word in the word “history”) in this instance is a fascinating true tale of ups, downs, and struggles to deal with the reality of succession.
  • ·         Here is a compelling pair of book-end situations drawn from Truman’s experience. Think about how far African-Americans and civil rights came in the years between the Great Depression and the end of World War II. In the former years, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (her husband is president at the time) attended a segregated event, whites sitting on one side and blacks on the other. She chose a chair literally in the middle of room between them, seated alone. She thought, rightfully, that this “made a statement” about her disgust with segregation. Fast forward a decade or so, and then you see Harry Truman, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, addressing hundreds of African-Americans at a national meeting of the NAACP, announcing his support for a new civil rights law. It was the first time an American President had addressed the group. Think about the differences in those two scenes. A lot happened in the time between. In case you’re wondering, the most prominent African-American leader of the movement wasn’t Martin Luther King, but rather A. Philip Randolph, a sadly underappreciated figure in American history.
  • ·         I can’t think of a more appropriately named place for the graves of Harry and Bess Truman than Independence, Missouri. That captures the essence of both husband and wife.
  • ·         Truman’s reputation among Americans fell to one of the lowest of all presidential administrations in American history. By the time he leaves the White House in 1953 Truman is very unpopular. It’s not until the early 1970s with the publication of Plain Speaking (an oral biography of Truman by Merle Miller) and the one-man show by James Whitmore that public and historians’ opinions of Truman begin to rise. Perhaps not coincidentally, Truman’s death was in 1972. Why the shift in the early 1970s? I suspect his death explains part of it: we tend to sympathize with the deceased. However, I think other factors figure here as well—as concerns intensified over Vietnam, coupled with the declining popularity of President Richard Nixon, Truman’s reputation got a big boost. I also think it’s important that you see in the early 1970s the final throes of the Youth Rebellion—the declines of many traditions, institutional authority, and other systems of respect. Truman’s bluntness, honesty, and time-tested values were more attractive then than before. I wonder if this will be true for each of us. When we die, will our families remember us differently as time passes? Has it been true for those in your family who have died already? And if so, is this nostalgia or romanticizing or is it something more profound? Interesting questions, these.