Presidents have leadership lessons to teach, CEO tells Jackson Economic Club audience

By Frank Weir
Legal News

Can we learn lessons from past U.S. presidents or are their experiences too far removed from a world of global recession and hard-to-combat terrorism?

Ron Felber, president of Chemetall U.S. Inc., believes we can and has written a book about it called, “Presidential Lessons in Leadership.”
Felber spoke at the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce Economic Club luncheon last week.

Chemetall, along with corporate parent Rockwood Holdings, recently announced the planned construction of a $25 million manufacturing plant in Blackman Township in Jackson for Rockwood’s Chemetall U.S. Inc. business unit.

The plant will employ 74 individuals. The specialty chemical company supplies a variety of “surface treatments” and industrial cleaning preparations used in the manufacturing of durable goods.

Felber began by explaining how he found lessons in the administrations of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.

“I came to believe that it will take more than traditional management theories to get us out of the situation we find ourselves in at this time in our history,” he said.

“It will take great leadership. So I started to bone up on leadership theory and I found that most missed the mark.

“There seems to be three categories of leadership theory including the scientific model, the ego driven model and the model exemplified by Jim Collins’ book, ‘Good To Great.’

“But I discovered they were all talking about situational management, not leadership, in my opinion. And what we need is character-driven leadership.

“Character-driven leadership comes from deep inside a leader. We’re talking about integrity, wisdom and creativity. That form always will be more effective and enduring.

“You can seek to build leaders from the outside in rather than inside out, developing an inner self and ability.

“The presidents I studied all acted in a character driven way. And the lessons they mastered can be used by us in our business careers as well as in our day-to-day lives I think.

“You may disagree with my choices, but there is no question that, like them, we face challenging times that require not just management but transformational leadership leading to a fundamental change in culture.”

Felber began with Lincoln who historians rank at number one or two with Washington.

“Lincoln’s greatest teaching was his ability to navigate beyond nearly insurmountable obstacles, never abandoning his humanity.

“And we can learn from him. Don’t let your current environment dictate your future. Lincoln faced adversities but he lived his principles and set long-term goals that were larger than himself and his times.

He also surrounded himself with positive influences. In addition to his stepmother, he relied on only a very few books in his youth including the Bible, Aesop’s Fables, The Columbian Orator, and Shakespeare.

“His stepmother and those works were the foundation for the character driven leader that he became.

“The Columbian Orator taught him his valuable rhetorical skills, Shakespeare gave him a gift for language, Aesop’s Fables for story telling and the Bible, a spiritual basis.

“He used them all to maximum effect in his ‘House Divided’ speech and his debates with Douglas.

“When he chose his cabinet and other governmental advisers, he wanted the best minds available. Some were drawn from the ranks of his rivals but that didn’t matter. He wanted the best.

“And he listened to and considered both sides to a question. He listened to the economic concerns of the slave states and the moral arguments of the northern abolitionists.

“He knew slavery was unsustainable but a harsh black and white approach would have escalated the conflict so he kept the Emancipation Proclamation in his desk for six months, waiting for just the right moment.

“What lessons can we learn? We need to accommodate the thoughts of others and our decisions should not be based on our own likes and dislikes. Leaders are open minded and stay true to their underlying principles.”

For Washington, Felber noted his opportunistic nature in seeing opportunity, taking a risk and seizing it.

“Along with that is one of Washington’s greatest lessons: that failure is part of the journey. We learn more from our failures.

“Washington suffered monumental failures, for example at the Battle of the Wilderness. But his attitude was to admit it, analyze what went wrong, make changes and move on into the future tougher and wiser.

“Failure does not exist for those who turn setbacks to opportunities for improvement.”

Felber added that Washington led by his example, inspiring others in so doing.

“Leadership by example is the most powerful,” he said.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt “needed to see the floor before the sky,” Felber said.

“Paralyzed with polio, he crawled into a room to play poker with friends at Warm Springs, Georgia. The image is disturbing, yes.

“But it took the ravages of that disease to bring Roosevelt to the level of seeing the majesty, the joys and the sorrows of humanity. It opened his eyes to a world that had never been visible to him.

“His first lesson? Don’t hide from humanity. Don’t pay others to keep things hidden from you, it’s an exile from learning.

“And lesson two was Roosevelt’s communication skills. He developed a bond with his countrymen through his ‘fireside chats.’  And written skills, with clarity, impact and brevity are vitally important for today’s leaders too.

“Teddy Roosevelt was a most unique leader with passion, deep seated beliefs and wonderful communication skills. He also used every moment to improve his knowledge. A life-long student, he was a prodigy by the age of eight.

“He shows us the importance of developing on multiple levels or becoming irrelevant.

“And Teddy shows us you can lead from the middle of the pack. He famously said, ‘Do what you can with what you have where you are.’

“He gave us a third lesson as well. To pursue our passion with no fear. Control the fear within you.

“In 1912, he was shot in the chest at point blank range but went on to a speaking engagement for an hour and a half. He showed the stunned audience his bloodied shirt and told them he’d just been shot adding, ‘It takes more than a bullet to kill a dream’

“Pursue your passion while you understand the nature of your fear.”

Felber said the John Kennedy’s gift was that of critical thinking.

“People followed him since his ideas seemed to be the best option for the future. His powers of critical thinking shine forth even in the disastrous Bay of Pigs disaster.

“His first lesson is to admit your mistakes and learn from them. He admitted the mistakes of the Bay of Pigs and moved on. What he learned there helped him navigate his way through the subsequent Cuban missile crisis.

“That crisis exemplifies his second lesson for us. Stay calm in the eye of the storm. Kennedy understood the consequences if he got the missile crisis wrong.

“He was grave under pressure but unwilling to accept missiles in Cuba. So he ordered a naval blockade, began plans for an invasion, and readied our nuclear arsenal for war.

“Khrushchev wanted to find a way out but needed to save face so he agreed to Kennedy’s proposition that he forego Cuban missiles and the U.S. would remove its missiles in Turkey. The confrontation was over.

“Yet then came the most shocking revelation. There were already 170 missiles in place in Cuba. If Kennedy hadn’t stayed calm, it is estimated a 100 million Americans might have lost their lives in a nuclear cataclysm.

“You may be at the center of a storm, but don’t let the storm enter you.”

In Ronald Reagan, Felber said we have two lessons.

“He saw the futility of a defense based on attack. He commented on how radar had protected Britain during World War II and he thought defensive satellites could do the same, forming a shield overhead.

“So his first lesson is to connect the dots. Define an objective and understand the environment that surrounds you to come up with an innovative solution.

“Reagan also showed the importance of preparing yourself for the long haul. In 1981 he presented his program for economic recovery and one year later, employment was worse among other economic measures.

“But he never lost faith and after two years, the economy had turned finally. Great leaders are not dilettantes. They all prepare for the long haul.

“Few good things come easily so prepare yourself physically and psychologically for the long haul and stay focused on the prize, on what you are trying to achieve.

“These six presidents learned from every failure and used that knowledge to build a better self. We waste time and money on unessential stuff. How much time do we spend on building a better self?

“If ambitions swirl in our heads what do we do about it? If we don’t respond then we are in a box of our own creation.

“The world faces massive challenges and cries out for change.

“And character driven leadership can help us accomplish the changes we need to make,” he said.