Meet the most successful president you’ve never heard of

This February is particularly important for Americans and president-want-to-be’s. First, it is the monthshades_polk_0002 in which we celebrate President’s Day. Second, 2016 is a presidential election year. Finally, the month begins with the all-important Iowa Caucuses and is followed by the New Hampshire Presidential Primary. So it seems only appropriate that we consider a successful president you may know little about—President James K. Polk.

Successful presidents must create a strategic vision, communicate that vision to the nation, and then pursue its execution. Classic examples are Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, FDR’s speech to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, or John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address calling for the nation to “place a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” Even the Bible notes, “Without vision, the people perish…”

But creating a vision is not sufficient. As Warren Bennis, a famous leadership scholar, observed, “Action without vision is stumbling in the dark; vision without action is poverty stricken poetry.” Every leader must answer four critical questions as he or she seeks to implement the path they have chosen for their organization:

  • How do we get there? (Assess)
  • Where should we go? (Decide)
  • How do we get there? (Implement)
  • Are we getting there? (Assure/reassess)

President James K. Polk was our 11th chief executive and a protégé of President Andrew Jackson. Inaugurated in 1845, he announced soon after assuming the presidency that he would serve only one term. Polk was the youngest man to assume the presidency to that point. He had served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and is the only person to have held that office as well as the presidency. In 1839, Polk left Congress and was elected governor of Tennessee. He failed, however, in two governorship reelection attempts, and political pundits at the time thought “Young Hickory” (as he was called due to his ties to Jackson) was finished in politics. In 1844, the Democratic Party appeared deadlocked at the nominating convention between its two potential candidates—former President Warren Van Buren and Lewis Cass of Michigan. The aging Andrew Jackson intervened and convinced party leaders to select Polk as a dark horse candidate.

As we consider the often-bruising nature of modern politics it is important to remember that campaigns in 1844 were also rough and tumble. Polk’s opponent was the nationally renowned Henry Clay, known in Congress and throughout the country as “the Great Compromiser.” Shortly after Polk’s nomination, Clay’s Whig party published campaign literature that asked “Who is James K. Polk?” The Democrats responded with a pamphlet entitled “Twenty-one Reasons Why Clay Should Not Be Elected.” Reason Two was “Clay spends his days at the gaming table and his nights in a brothel.”

Polk defeated Clay and was inaugurated on March 4th 1845. The looming question of the day was whether or not the United States would annex Texas and expand its national boundaries westward. The “Lone Star State” was an independent nation at that moment following its successful revolution against Mexican authority in 1835. In his inaugural address Polk stated his vision and made his intent clear:

The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our Government. While the Chief Magistrate and the popular branch of Congress are elected for short terms by the suffrages of those millions who must in their own persons bear all the burdens and miseries of war, our Government cannot be otherwise than pacific. Foreign powers should therefore look on the annexation of Texas to the United States not as the conquest of a nation seeking to extend her dominions by arms and violence, but as the peaceful acquisition of a territory once her own, by adding another member to our confederation with the consent of that member, thereby diminishing the chances of war and opening to them new and ever increasing markets for their products.

Still President Polk must have known that war with Mexico was likely if the United States proceeded to annex Texas. Furthermore, many Americans were clamoring for war to achieve the America’s so-called divinely inspired “Manifest Destiny” and expand the nation’s borders to the Pacific. The Mexican War (as it is referred to in the US) began in the spring of 1846 and ended with an American victory by the fall of 1847. Members of the Whig Party opposed the war, as they believed it was both imperialist and an attempt to seek new territory for slavery. One of the primary Whig Congressional opponents was a young Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

So why is Polk considered to be the most successful American president you may have never heard of? Polk clearly articulated his vision and intent as President in his inaugural address. He assessed the situation when he assumed office that the United States had an opportunity to expand and seek its “destiny.” He decided to pursue that with the annexation of Texas while knowing that this would likely mean war with Mexico. Polk implemented his vision by setting conditions that insured war would occur. He led the nation to victory and negotiated the Treaty of Hidalgo with Mexico. President Polk also concluded an agreement with Great Britain that settled a boundary dispute between the US and Canada in the Northwest Territories. We can reassess how well he did by considering that in this one term Polk added a million square miles to the territory of the nation. This included Texas as well as the current states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. Furthermore large portions of Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado were also part of these agreements.

Some might disagree with Polk’s vision or how he implemented it, but there can be little doubt that he had in fact articulated a vision, communicated it clearly, and then executed it. He accomplished all of this in one four-year term. But Polk appears to have been exhausted by his four years in office. As he prepared to depart Washington, he observed, “I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close. I will soon cease to be a servant and will become a sovereign.” James K. Polk left office in March 1849 and died a few months later at the age of 53.


Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership, LLC is a retired Army Colonel with over 30 years of unique and challenging leadership experiences. As a retired military officer and veteran Jeff’s work has taken him all over the world serving in a variety of command and staff positions in places such as the on National Security Council Staff, U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the Pentagon.

Lincoln and Strategic Vision

The movie Lincoln is a case study in how a leader creates a vision for an organization, communicates that vision, and evolves the vision over time.  Lincoln realized a leader must develop and articulate a vision in a fashion that followers can “digest” and accept.  The leader must also take advantage of important moments to communicate changes to the vision.  These refinements must be both timely and timed to occur when the organization is focused on an intermediate step.

Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington in the spring of 1861 firmly opposed to slavery.  Still in his first inaugural address he stated that he did not intend to interfere with slavery where it existed.  Rather he described a vision focused on preserving the Union and preventing war.  He knew that to argue for the elimination of the so-called “peculiar institution” at that moment would insure war, prevent any possibility of reconciliation with Southern states, and might not be widely accepted even in the North.

Following the attack on Ft. Sumter the nation rallied to preserve the Union.  By the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln realized that the time had come to expand on his initial vision and began secret discussions with his cabinet on the Emancipation Proclamation.  Late that summer he achieved agreement on a draft document and announced it following a Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in September.  Still it only freed slaves in the “states under rebellion” and did not go into effect until 1 January 1863.  Consequently, it had no effect on slaves in the border states and if any southern state had returned to the Union in the intervening months they could have retained their slaves.  When any leader announces an evolution in the organization’s vision it is met with opposition.  Frederick Douglass (himself a former slave) ridiculed the President for not ending slavery throughout the entire nation.  Others who had supported the war to preserve the Union announced their firm opposition to any effort to expand the goals of the war to end slavery.

On a cold day in the autumn of 1863 Lincoln mounted a stage at the Gettysburg cemetery to make “a few appropriate remarks”.  He delivered an address of 272 words which may be the clearest and most concise statement of a strategic vision in the English language.  He began by telling the audience where they and the country had been – four score and seven years ago which connected these remarks with the Declaration of Independence and its opening statement of essential values – we hold these truths to be self-evident that all Men are created equal.  He then moved to where the nation was that afternoon.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  Lincoln concluded with a statement of a revised vision for the future.  That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 

By the spring of 1864 the Union Army was bogged down outside Richmond in a series of bloody battles of attrition. Many Republicans had begun to argue that Lincoln should not be nominated for a second term.  The fall of Atlanta in September to General Sherman, however, restored the nation’s confidence.  Lincoln was reelected President on a campaign slogan of “Liberty and the Union” which summarized the theme of the Gettysburg Address.

As dramatically portrayed in the movie the stage was set for the debate over an amendment to end slavery forever in January 1865.  Many of Lincoln’s supporters argued that this was premature and urged him to wait until the war was over.  But the President overrode the opposition and succeeded in securing passage of the amendment.

On March 4, 1865 Lincoln ascended the podium at the Capitol for his second inaugural address.  The war had lasted four years and over 600,000 Americans had died, but Union armies appeared close to victory.  Everyone in the audience had lost someone – brother, father, son, nephew, etc.  The President could called for retribution against Confederate leaders (Lee, Davis, etc.), and the audience would have likely endorsed the sentiment.  But Lincoln returned to his initial vision of preserving the Union.  In 703 words carefully crafted words the re-elected president delivered what he believed to be his finest speech.  He would anchor the hope of the nation’s future with malice toward none and with charity towards all.  In the days that followed the pace of events would accelerate.  In late March Lincoln met with his principal military leaders – General Grant, Admiral Porter, and General Sherman to discuss the end of the war.  As he departed the President gave his commanders his final guidance – Let them up easy.  They would follow this counsel in the terms they offered during the surrender of Confederate armies.

On April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.  The nation rejoiced and on the following evening there were fireworks and parades in Washington.  Crowds assembled on the White House lawn, and Lincoln delivered his final speech.  He reiterated his desire to reconcile the southern states into the Union, but used this opportunity to expand the vision once more.  Lincoln argued that in the war’s aftermath the nation should offer former slaves that had served in the Union Army (over 200,000) full rights of citizenship.  This might seem a logical next step that would be non-controversial, but this was not the case in 1865.  Lincoln knew he was setting the stage for another bitter political debate.

In the crowd that evening was a well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth.   Later that evening Booth met with his fellow conspirators and announced, “that is the last speech that man will ever give”.  Four nights later Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, and the President died early the next morning, Good Friday.  Sadly, the vision that Abraham Lincoln had created, evolved, and communicated to the nation would largely remain unrealized for the next hundred years.  Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960’s would the nation return fully to the ideals he had articulated.  It remains a vision of equality and human dignity that we continue to strive for even today.

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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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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.