Why President Truman Was a Great Leader

The position of President of the United States of America embodies everything that most of us believe and hope for when we think about leadership.  As we celebrate another President’s Day it is only appropriate that we consider the leadership strengths and weaknesses in the men who have occupied this office.  This is particularly poignant now as we are embroiled in a Presidential election campaign.  For the next eight months we will hear frequent analysis of the leadership abilities of President Obama and those who aspire to replace him.

With this in mind let’s examine one of my personal favorites and heroes – Harry Truman and some of the critical leadership attributes that I believe he epitomized.  Harry Truman was a different kind of President. Consider for a moment the challenge that he faced when he became President.  Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, the longest serving President in American history, died suddenly on April 12th 1945.  Truman had only been selected as Roosevelt’s running mate in July 1944.  Prior to Roosevelt’s death Truman had only personally met FDR twice.  As David McCullough, the renowned American historian, once commented, “To many it was not just that the greatest had fallen, but that the least of men – or at any rate the least likely of men – had assumed his place.”

Strategic vision and determination.
Dwight Eisenhower, who would succeed Truman in the presidency, is reported to have said that leadership is about defining a vision and then convincing others to follow it.  Truman clearly made as many or more important strategic decisions regarding our nation’s history as any of the other forty-two Presidents preceding him. Consider for a moment the following brief list of his accomplishments:

  • Assumes the presidency as World War II is coming to a close and must make the difficult decision to use the atomic bomb that brings the war with Japan to a close.
  • Creates the Marshall Plan to aid in European recovery from the devastation of the war.
  • Oversees the immediate aftermath of the war to include the Potsdam Conference and when confronted by Soviet threats begins the Berlin Airlift in 1949.
  • Establishes programs to transition millions of soldiers, sailors, airman, and Marines to civilian life including the creation of the GI Bill that many have argued was fundamental to the nation’s recovery and dramatic economic growth.

All of these demonstrated Truman’s ability to define a vision for the nation and then doggedly pursue it.  But one other event may even more clearly demonstrate these abilities.  Michael Beschloss, the award winning presidential historian, documents in his book, Presidential Courage President Truman’s decision to recognize Israel as a sovereign state in May 1948.  On May 14th 1948 the President signed the order recognizing the Jewish state’s independence and membership in the community of nations.

Truman made this decision despite the strenuous objection of most of this advisers including Secretary of State George Marshall.  Marshall had even told the president that should he take this action Marshall would consider resigning his position and campaigning against Truman in the fall elections.  Many historians also believe that Truman’s wife, Bess was strongly opposed to recognizing the Jewish state.  Truman would later say he made this decision because it was in the best interest of the United States and in the aftermath of the Holocaust there was clear moral obligation to do so.

Authority vs Responsibility.

Frequently, some leaders will use the words authority and responsibility as synonyms.  They are not, and President Truman clearly understood this.  As we move up the leadership ladder we are forced to give more authority to others.  There is no alternative, as we simply cannot do or oversee everything.  This is obviously true for the presidency which is frequently referred to as the most powerful and most difficult leadership position on the planet!  Truman understood, however, that he was responsible to the American people for the successes and the failures of his administration.  To remind him of this fact he kept a plaque on his desk that was copied from that of an Oklahoma prison warden.  It read simply – “The buck stops here!”

Optimism and Hope.

John W. Gardner in his celebrated book, On Leadership, observed that “the first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive.”  Former Secretary of State and retired General Colin Powell has similarly observed that “optimism in a leader is a force multiplier”.  There is no doubt that Truman publicly displayed an air of optimism that those around him may well have found infectious.

As the presidential elections of 1948 approached few in America gave Truman much chance for reelection.  It was clear at the Democratic Party convention in the summer that spirits were low.  The Republicans had taken control of both houses of the Congress and a majority of state governorships during the 1946 midterm elections by running against Truman.  Public-opinion polls showed Truman trailing Republican nominee Dewey, sometimes by double digits. Furthermore, some liberal Democrats had joined Henry A. Wallace’s new Progressive Party. Many party leaders feared that Wallace would take enough votes from Truman to give the large Northern and Midwestern states to the Republicans.  As a result of Truman’s low standing in the polls, several Democratic party bosses began working to “dump” Truman and nominate a more popular candidate.

Despite this cloud of pessimism, Truman secured his party’s nomination and took his campaign directly to the American people.  In perhaps one of the most celebrated demonstrations of resilience and the ability to come back from adversity in American history, Truman “barnstormed” across the nation.  “Give ’em hell, Harry,” was a popular slogan shouted out at stop after stop along the tour.

In the campaign’s final days many newspapers, magazines, and political pundits were so confident of Dewey’s impending victory they wrote articles to be printed the morning after the election speculating about the new “Dewey Presidency”.  Life magazine printed a large photo in its final edition before the election; entitled “Our Next President Rides by Ferryboat over San Francisco Bay”, the photo showed Dewey and his staff riding across the city’s harbor. Several well-known and influential newspaper columnists, such as Drew Pearson and Joseph Alsop, wrote columns to be printed the morning after the election speculating about Dewey’s possible choices for his cabinet. Alistair Cooke, the distinguished writer for the Manchester Guardian newspaper in England, published an article on the day of the election entitled “Harry S. Truman: A Study of a Failure.” As Truman made his way to his hometown of Independence, Missouri to await the election returns, not a single reporter traveling on his campaign train thought that he would win.

But Truman would win the election by over 2.5 million votes over Dewey in what many still argue is the greatest upset in American political history.  In the photo below Truman is seen gleefully holding up the front page of the Chicago Tribune which had already printed its morning edition for November 3rd 1948.  Truman’s optimism as a leader was key to this victory.

Level 5 leadership
Jim Collins introduced a new term to the leadership lexicon – Level 5 leadership in his book, Good to Great.  Level 5 refers to the highest level in a hierarchy of executive capabilities and this certainly would include the presidency. Leaders at the other four levels may be successful, but are unable to elevate their organizations from mediocrity to sustained excellence.  Level 5 leadership challenges the assumption that transforming any organization from good to great requires larger-than-life-leaders.   According to Collins, humility is a key ingredient of Level 5 leadership. His simple formula is Humility + Will = Level 5.  This would seem to sum up Harry Truman in many ways.

A measure of his greatness may rest on what he did after he left the White House. After President Eisenhower was inaugurated, Harry and Bess drove home to Missouri by themselves. There was no Secret Service following them.  The only asset he had when he died was the house he lived in, which was in Independence, Missouri. His wife had inherited the house (seen in the following photo) from her mother and father.  Other than their years in the White House, they lived their entire lives there.  When he departed the White House in 1952 his income was an Army pension reported to have been $13,507.72 a year. Congress, noting that he was paying for his stamps and personally licking them, granted him an “allowance” and, later, a retroactive pension of $25,000 per year.  In later years when offered corporate positions at large salaries, he declined, stating, “You don’t want me. You want the office of the President, and that doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the American people and it’s not for sale.”

Even later, on May 6, 1971, when Congress was preparing to award him the Medal of Honor on his 87th birthday, he refused to accept it, writing, “I don’t consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise.”

Perhaps one of the best and final observations about Truman is provided by another great leader, Winston Churchill.  While dining with Truman in Washington during a visit to the United States in January 1950, Churchill admitted his disappointment at first meeting Truman in Potsdam at the end of World War II.  “I must confess, sir,” Churchill said.  “I held you in very low regard then.  I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt.”  But he continued, “I misjudged you badly.  Since then, you, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.”  As we look back on the presidency and life of this man from Missouri many Americans might well agree with Sir Winston’s comments.

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Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.
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This article is from our February, 2012 newsletter. Click here to view all our newsletter articles and features.

7 thoughts on “Why President Truman Was a Great Leader”

  1. I wish we had a candidate just like TRUMAN TODAY IN 2015
    thank you for providing this interesting information.

  2. He s a war criminal. He could have saved hundred of thousands of live if he had make peace with Japan in may or june 1945

    The use of the bomb was unnecessary

    Einsenhower said ” first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives”

    1. Hindsight arm chair QB’s are always far more informed than those they judge.

      Hirohito’s broadcast speech to the Japanese people that they would fight until the death and never surrender pretty much ends the discussion as to whether Truman should have used the bomb or not.

      Japan’s own military documentation proves they had armed their people, some as suicide bombers, as well as filling every cave with attack squads. Until the bombs were dropped, Japan had no intention of ever surrendering. Both the Japanese and the USA estimations of the numbers expected to die in a land/sea/air campaign on the island would have breached 1 million, half of which would be US. So tell me again why the USA was expected to piss away a half million of its young men to spare the horror of the bomb in a war that Japan started?

      1. Japan didn’t surrender because of the bomb. They kept fighting and surrendered because Russia entered the war against them. Dropping the second bomb the day after Russia attacked was conveniently timed but wholly unnecessary.

        As far as Truman goes, didn’t he set the Cold War in motion by destroying FDRs relationship with Russia along with every chance we had to remain allies? We had a-bombs, they didn’t, we used them, they were concerned we’d turn on them, especially with a n00b prez.

        Truly Awful Truman

        1. Russia was said to be aiding Japan in the war. Russia sought money/power for the damage don’t by Germany during the war, the big three’s refusal to approve some of his more radical method of gaining such reimbursement was a catalyst for the war. Japan on the other hand was rampaging through Asia slaughtering 6.3 million people including American troops. Despite this Truman tried for years to make peace with Japan, but the emperor himself said that the U.S. would have to kill every woman and child for them to surrender. Truman is not Grant who would have made a swift decision in bombing them or every expanding that to gain an unconditional surrender.
          And what caused Japan to go on a killing spree? Because they were ignored during WWI as a powerful military force. Japanese culture is centered on the preservation of honor, so basically because they weren’t acknowledged they felt that the world had given them the ultimate insult; P.S. There was a nutjob named Hitler going around killing people- you know the mass gendercide of Jews, so sorry it their ego wasn’t attend to. Honesty Truman’s decision was best for the country, it’s not like Japan didn’t pose a threat to the American people’s safety.
          It is terrible that those people had to died just like in any war, but even with the second bomb not every women and children were killed. The Japanese killed more people in their hidden holocaust. It was a matter of survival, dating back to Darwinism, survival of the fittest.

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