Managers can learn from presidents

Past U.S. leaders understood value of communication, honesty

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It's been a big week for bickering. The GOP candidates for president unleashed themselves on the Democratic incumbent they want to challenge -- and continued turning on each other.

The name-calling and mud-slinging in the race for our nation's highest office can make it easy to forget that many former residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. have offered leadership lessons that can be applied to any office.

Take pretty well-known President Abraham Lincoln, appealing to the South in his inaugural address not to secede from the Union.

We all know how that turned out, but telling the truth no matter how many friends you lose is an important trait of an office manager, said Donald T. Phillips, an author who mines history for contemporary leadership lessons in books such as "Lincoln on Leadership" and "The Founding Fathers on Leadership."

"It's about character foremost and integrity and speaking truth to difficult times, not worrying about losing too many votes or appealing to this audience or that," Mr. Phillips said.

The Lincoln book's first chapter is titled: "Get out of the office and circulate among the troops."

Mr. Phillips said new managers often make the mistake of holing up in the corner office and letting employees come to them. But a constant feedback cycle of asking others their opinions and providing your own is vital to making a workplace feel involved in decisions.

"Lincoln did that by going out and talking to everyone about why he was forcing the war and not backing off, which was to preserve the nation," he said.

A more daunting message than allowing extra vacation days, sure, but the point is the transparency with which Mr. Lincoln did it, Mr. Phillips said.

Sharing in a vision -- rather than decreeing one from on high -- boosts morale and buy-in from employees, who might otherwise not see the long-term goals of a project, Mr. Phillips said.

The corporate lingo of today's workplace can muddy the simple lessons of yesteryear, Mr. Phillips said, when the best leaders didn't worry about synergizing department mission statements so much as appealing to our better angels.

Many of Mr. Phillips's antebellum subjects lived before the Industrial Revolution, an event that the author says redefined "leadership" as "management," and that allows for a clearer sense of what any workplace executive's attitude should be.

"The difference is: You manage things, but you lead people," he said.


Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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