By Thom Little, Ph.D.

This past weekend, I joined state legislative and corporate leaders from across the nation at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. Participants heard from AJ Baime, best-selling author of “The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World” and “Truman Defeats Dewey: The 1948 Election and the Battle for the Soul of America.” Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of President Truman also spoke to our group. He is the author of “Growing Up with My Grandfather: Memories of Harry S. Truman” and “Dear Harry, Love Bess: Bess Truman’s Letters to Harry Truman, 1919-1943.”  Baime and Daniel both shared lessons on leadership from the life of Harry Truman that are worth repeating.

Leaders Read. Although President Truman was considered uneducated by many of the political elite because he did not attend college, he was a lifelong learner and voracious reader. In particular, he read biographies, particularly those of great leaders. According to Truman, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” 

Leaders Learn from the Mistakes of History. According to Harry Truman, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know” and Harry Truman knew a lot of history. In fact, AJ Baime reminded us that Truman studied historical leaders to learn what to do and what not to do. He studied Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States, who also followed a great and beloved President who led America during wartime to learn what not to do. His understanding that the rise of Hitler was due in great part to the allies’ desire to crush Germany after World War I led to the Marshall Plan and a rebuilding of Germany and Japan that have seen them be among our staunchest allies for three-quarters of a century.

Leaders are Confident, but Humble. Looking back at Truman’s tenure, his humility comes through. Truman once remarked, “There are probably a million people who could have done this job better than I did it, but I had the job.” He had no illusions that he could fill the large shoes of Franklin Roosevelt, the man who had been President for more than a decade before him, but he vowed “to do all that I can for the welfare of this Nation and for the peace of the world.” Interestingly, the Truman family did their best to instill that humility in future generations. According to Daniel, Truman’s grandson, he did not find out that his grandfather had been president until the first day of first grade for fear that such knowledge “would go to his head!”

Leaders Don’t Let Failure Stop Them. Before he was elected to the United States Senate in 1934, Harry Truman had struggled at many things. After twelve years of hard labor, he decided he had had enough of farming. After that, he and a buddy bought a small oil and mining company. After a few years, he sold it at a small profit only to have its new owners strike an oil gusher soon after the sale. Then he and an army friend tried their hand at retail, opening the Truman and Jacobson Haberdashery in 1919. The store closed in 1921. But Truman did not let these challenges discourage him– despite these early failures, he was elected a County Commissioner, then US Senator, then Vice President and eventually the leader of the free world. 

Leaders are Persuasive. Leaders are only leaders if they have followers. According to Truman, “My definition of a leader in a free country is a man who can persuade people to do what they don’t want to do and like it.” An effective leader has to possess the ability, through oratory, emotion, relationships and sometimes sheer will, to convince others to do what he or she feels is best. This requires that a leader have a strong character such that others are willing to trust and follow him or her. Truman proved this by gaining the trust of his men in World War I, the infamous (until Harry got ahold of them) Battery D, “an unruly, insubordinate band of men who had scared away a previous commander” who then became, under his leadership, one of the best units in the US Army.

Leaders Can Come from Unexpected Places. When Harry Truman was nominated as Roosevelt’s Vice President, no one expected him to be President (although given Roosevelt’s obviously declining health, maybe they should have). When he was growing up on a farm in Independence, Missouri, no one expected this far-sighted boy to become the leader of the free-world. When Stalin sat down with Truman and Winston Churchill, he had little reason to expect Truman, whom he believed could not adequately replace Roosevelt, to stand up to him. And yet he did all of these things, and today is considered by most historians to be among America’s best presidents.

Leaders Take Responsibility for their Actions and Decisions. As we all know, Truman famously kept a small sign on his desk with the quote, “The Buck Stops Here.” Leaders have to make hard decisions and stick by them. True leaders do not “pass the buck” or blame others when they fail. As Truman stated in his farewell address in 1953, “The President–whoever he is–has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.” 

Leaders Find a Way to Get Away. Being a leader is tough. There is a lot of pressure on those at the top. In order to not only survive, but thrive, a leader needs to find ways to escape from the daily pressures of the job and recharge. For President Roosevelt, that time was what he called the “Children’s Hour,” where friends and associates gathered for drinks and conversation with one stipulation–no discussion of politics. President Truman found his release in his regular poker games, high stakes games with other government executives and lower stakes games with white house staff.

Leaders Rise to the Occasion. Having been Vice President for less than three months and having met with the President just twice during that time, perhaps no one who has ever taken the oath of office to be President of the United States was less prepared to be President. He knew nothing of the massively destructive bomb being developed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos, New Mexico. He knew nothing of the promises made to Stalin and Churchill at the Yalta Conference just two months before he took office. He could not know that within his first four months in office, he would be making decisions that “changed the world.”  Despite all of that, he pushed forward firmly in the belief that if you “do your duty, history will do you justice.” 

Harry S. Truman, the plain-spoken, high-school educated farmer from Independence, Missouri, is proof that anyone, armed with the right tools, passion, values, humility and effort (and a little luck) can change the world!