Before this month passes us by, I’d like to take a closer look at the 2 great American leaders we honor every February. Although some view Presidents’ Day as a way to recognize all American presidents, many believe that this minimizes the legacies of the men whose great leadership in fact spurred the creation and evolution of this commemoration: first George Washington, and later Abraham Lincoln as well.
But why them? We’ve had other significant presidents – leaders who many people consider great. So what sets George and Abe apart?
We could launch another whole blog based on that question. But in the interest of brevity, let’s distill it down to 3 things. (I love lists of 3. They’re great for impact and priority – and for my memory!)
Both Washington and Lincoln possessed humility.
This is a seriously misunderstood term. “Humility” does not define a person who has a small self image or thinks little of his or her ability. Far from it!
As a result of this inner strength, the humble leader – like Washington and Lincoln – is not absorbed with fickle public opinion or the stress of ensuring he’s liked. Instead, he shows steady equanimity – calm in crisis.
The humble leader does not attack those who disagree. Instead, he tends to listen and, when necessary, calmly re-state his positive vision for moving forward.
The humble leader doesn’t need to brag. You won’t notice him constantly using the words “I” and “me”. But you will hear him giving credit to others. His inner strength gives him the confidence to do so.
Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had a discerning perspective on opposing viewpoints. Both men actively sought people who strongly disagreed with them, then made these people part of their team.
Furthermore, they listened to others, then went further, investing the time and effort to truly hear and care about others’ viewpoints. This does not mean that they agreed with the opposing point of view, but they did respect others’ passion for their own opinions.
When a leader has this quality, the people who work with him feel included and validated, even if their opinions don’t dicatate the chosen course of action. They feel more like they’re in the same boat – so they’re less apt to rock it.
3. Development Focus
One last exemplary leadership trait of these 2 great presidents: they both focused on the development of those around them, rather than on building up their own image. They encouraged others, often appealing to the best traits in people instead of harping on deficiencies or “weaknesses.”
And let’s be clear: both Washington and Lincoln were surrounded by the same type of everyday folks that we run into today, but they called these people to be their best selves.
For example, Jefferson and Hamilton – both part of George Washington’s cabinet – constantly disagreed and couldn’t stand each other. So what did our great first president do? He would spend hours listening to each of them, then point out some excellent trait in each man and ask him to call on that quality to find a compromise. So, while the rivals never came to like each other, they did repeatedly work out ways to move forward.
Can you, as a leader, write down 3 of your most powerful attributes? The long description of who you are is actually easier to create than this short list of what makes you great. Try it. It’s a fun and revealing exercise.