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Leadership Consulting

Leading in Uncertain Times: Six Lessons from US Presidents

2/12/2016 Steven Krupp and Paul S. Schoemaker

The White House

Today’s leaders have much to learn from six past presidents who exhibited true strategic leadership. While each navigated his own distinct challenges, their mastery of the key disciplines of strategic leadership unites them as some of our country’s most memorable commanders in chief.

These disciplines, distilled from research with more than 30,000 leaders across the globe, include the critical and complementary skills to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn, as illustrated below.

Anticipate change

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his final public speech as president, warned of the rise of the “military–industrial complex.” With his Army background and knowledge of the close links between the military and defense contractors, he saw the potential for corruption and wasteful spending. At the height of the Cold War, as the United States sought to maintain the world’s most powerful military, Eisenhower had the foresight to bring this issue into the public consciousness. Debates about military spending continue to occupy the political landscape today, though Eisenhower first raised the issue more than 50 years ago. In a similar way, leaders must draw from their experience and insights to anticipate and prepare for impending shifts.

Challenge convention

During the socially tumultuous 1960s President Lyndon B. Johnson, a son of Texas and a proud Southerner, had to look in the mirror and challenge his own biases and those of his constituents as he began to change course on civil rights. It took personal and political courage to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To advocate for civil and voting rights, Johnson had to confront strong adversaries, such as Governor George Wallace of Alabama, and defy deep-seated racial prejudice. All leaders can learn from Johnson’s ability to challenge convention and prejudices that perpetuate the status quo.

Interpret signals

While President Richard Nixon remains a controversial figure, his visit to China in 1972 was groundbreaking. Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, picked up signals that the People’s Republic of China, led by Chairman Mao Tse-tung, might be open to a degree of reconciliation with the West and concluded that China might consider normalizing Sino-American relations. Communist China had viewed the United States, which refused even to recognize Mao’s government, as its greatest enemy, yet Nixon saw through the hostility and recognized a potential for mutual benefit. Nixon’s visit opened the door to renewed trade relations, creating strong economic ties that still exist today. Like Nixon, strategic leaders constantly scan for weak signals on the periphery and connect dots that others might not see.

Decide with conviction

President Ronald Reagan didn’t earn the moniker “the Great Communicator” for nothing. He made his famous speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987 (in which he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”) despite the strenuous objections of his top advisors in the State Department, many of whom thought such strong phrasing would be an affront to the Soviet premier. Reagan showed great courage in sticking by his decision when he could easily have shied away. Leaders should always consider their options but have the guts to make a tough call.

Align stakeholders

In August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded its tiny neighbor, the oil-rich emirate of Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush condemned this “naked act of aggression” and immediately began assembling an international coalition to denounce the Iraqi dictator. Bush had spent years working overseas in various roles for the State Department, and he tapped into his wide network of international contacts, rallying key players and bridging differences in an effort to strengthen the international community. Most leaders don’t invest enough time or energy to engage their stakeholders early and often when mobilizing for change.

Learn from failure

President John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was accompanied by a wave of optimism. Yet mere months after taking office he became embroiled in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. Kennedy recognized this failure as an opportunity for innovation; when the Soviet Union shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba in October 1962, precipitating the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy took a different approach to the problem. Going against the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who recommended missile strikes or another invasion, he instead approved a naval blockade of Cuba and secret negotiations to remove US missiles from Turkey. His cool thinking paid off and averted a possible nuclear crisis, teaching a powerful lesson about learning from mistakes.

While presidents are confronted with historic political challenges, business leaders are also facing high-stakes scenarios presented by the intensifying landscape of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The examples above illustrate just how powerful strategic leadership can be amid uncertainty and offer fundamental lessons for strengthening strategic aptitude.

A version of this article appeared in Chief Executive. For more, click here.

Steven Krupp ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles' Philadelphia office, where Paul S. Schoemaker is a senior associate. 

Steven Krupp Partner +1 610.7171000

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