5 standards for presidential leadership

When it comes to presidential leadership, how should voters judge the candidates? The sheer number of books on leadership hint that not even the consultants and gurus can agree on a set of standards.

Why not ask a historian, who spends a significant portion of life in the mental company of people who really did turn out to possess the Midas touch of leadership? Here, Prof. Allen C. Guelzo, an authority on Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg College, suggests five leadership standards, personified in such figures as Lincoln, Churchill, and Admiral Nelson.

1.Love of the daily toil and mechanics of governing

British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill (left), US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (center), and Soviet leader Josef Stalin (right) at the Yalta conference, where they made final plans for the defeat of Germany in February 1945. Churchill organized his sleep to get more work hours out of a day. (National Archives/Reuters/File)

Leadership means not only knowing, but loving the knowing. American essayist Logan Pearsall Smith once said, "The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves."

It's become fashionable to sniff at this as workaholism or wonkishness. But it's really describing someone who has found joy in the innumerable nuts and bolts of work. And that is precisely what the greatest leaders of free societies have possessed. Winston Churchill even arranged his sleeping hours into two parts so as to "press a day and a half's work into one." Oddly, it's been the hallmark of dictators to be careless and spendthrift of governing, preferring to franchise the real work to underlings who must then compete for the dictator's attention.

Understanding the issues of government

No one ever led by ignorance. Ably pointing the way arises out of a passion for learning, a single-minded determination to understand what makes people and things tick.

In his compelling study of Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, Adam Nicolson noticed that in Admiral Nelson's Royal Navy, every senior officer had to begin as a lowly midshipman, learning every knot the same as any ordinary seaman. Nelson's French and Spanish adversaries, however, were aristocrats who acquired their rank through social standing and who couldn't have sailed a toy boat around a bathtub.

No wonder they were nearly annihilated.

Mastery of the organization

Governing is not for the faint-hearted or those who are condemned to spend the first six months of their presidency figuring out where the washroom is. A leader understands the pulse and flow of responsibility among segments of a government as instinctively as a hunter estimates the range and speed of his target.

It was essential to the success of Churchill, when creating his war cabinet in 1940, to name himself minister of defense as well as prime minister, simply because he had seen from hard experience in World War I how disastrous the results could be when wartime civilian and military authorities are split apart.

He knew, in other words, how cabinet government in a parliamentary system worked and adjusted his own cabinet accordingly.

Ability to turn liabilities into assets

Abraham Lincoln stands out as a particularly strong example, since Lincoln was, not to put too fine a point on it, homely. One of Lincoln's legal colleagues said that he "had the appearance of a rough intelligent farmer." Rather than brood on this as an insult, Lincoln converted it into a strategy.

He let his opponents underestimate him, and then, when they grew puffed-up and overconfident, he led them neatly into traps of his own devising. "Any man who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man," said one of his legal associates, "would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch." People, however, kept on doing this; and Lincoln, even as president, kept on knocking them onto their backs in ditches.

Persistence

I don't mean mere stubbornness but a determination based on the ability to foresee the likely long-term results of decisions. It was, again, a characteristic of Lincoln that his "whole life was a calculation of the law of forces," as one of his close friends put it.

The friend remembered, during the awful years of the Civil War, that "whenever I would get nervous and think things were going wrong," Lincoln would bring out "a kind of account book of how things were progressing for three, or four months, and he would get out his estimates and show how everything on the great scale of action – the resolutions of Legislatures, the instructions of delegates, and things of that character – was going exactly as he expected."

Persistence, though, is costly. No matter how determined someone is, no matter how righteous their enterprise, few people are thick-skinned enough to stand as proof against all the slings and arrows of fickle fortune. What saved Lincoln from being consumed by resentment was his resilience, his willingness to absorb punishment and then walk away from it.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., and the author of "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President."