By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.

I am a fan of the wonderful (I think) 1980s situation comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati.” In the series’ final episode, Mrs. Carlson, the owner of the fictional WKRP radio station is trying to explain why she wants to move to an all news format – a move that will surely lose money. In explaining the move, she notes “Plusses and minuses are simply concepts on a ledger sheet, Pluses and minuses can be plusses and plusses if the minuses are played correctly.”

As I sat last week with more than one hundred legislative and corporate leaders in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, I was reminded of the dichotomy between plusses and minuses; success and failures. Now don’t get me wrong – I fully acknowledge the greatness of many of the 44 men who have held the nation’s highest post. Washington saw this nation through its sometimes painful birth and infancy. Jefferson facilitated and oversaw a doubling of its geographic map. Lincoln guided it through its darkest and most deadly hour. Franklin Roosevelt held it together during the depression and World War II, emerging as an international superpower. Eisenhower avoided another World War and put it on a path to racial equality. Kennedy inspired a nation and its people to be more and better than we ever thought we could. And Ronald Regan brought the nation back from a crisis of confidence, imploring it to be “the shining city on the hill” that he believed it had always been.

All of these presidents, including Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan, who were the focus of the recent SLLF Leadership Forum, are considered successful by the public, politicos and scholars. They are recognized for the accomplishments outlined above and for many more. However, as I listened to the scholars and others talk about these and other Presidents, I was struck not so much by their successes as by their failures; not so much by their strengths, but by their weaknesses.

Eisenhower, the greatest American general of the twentieth century did indeed get us out of Korea, manage several crises in the Middle East, pass and implement the national highway system and lead us through the 1958 economic recession. However, he failed to fully appreciate the significance and challenges of the growing civil rights movement and his effort to find “the Middle Way” failed him as he tried to negotiate with Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders. Likewise, while Kennedy is remembered for inspiring us to serve the nation and the world, he is also remembered for his failure at the Bay of Pigs and putting us on the path to the Vietnam War. Finally, Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, made us feel good about being an American again, but he also left the nation with a tremendous debt and the bitter memory of the Iran-Contra scandal.

I do not recite these failures to denigrate the memories of these three great Presidents. All great leaders have failures – none are perfect. Even Lincoln, recognized by almost all as the greatest US President of all time, may have stretched his Presidential powers past their constitutional bounds and most assuredly waited too long to remove McClellan from his post. Indeed, I acknowledge these weaknesses to emphasize their greatness. I know this will sound strange, but to a degree, I have come to believe that failure can be a sign of greatness as much as success.

If everything a leader does works or is successful, that means he or she took only the safe routes. Doing great things means taking risks and taking risks means risking failure. The sure and safe path seldom leads to greatness. Eisenhower could have listened to most of his advisors and used nuclear weapons to end the Korean War (as Truman had done in World War II), but what would have been the cost to history and for future generations? While the Bay of Pigs was an abject failure for JFK, the lessons he learned during that “mistake” may well have prevented war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When Ronald Reagan took office, he could have followed the same Keynesian path as his predecessors to solve the economic crisis facing America, but instead, he risked everything to take a completely different approach. The result was a significantly revived economy, 15 million jobs created in 8 years and a national debt. Risks are not without costs.

Over time, I have come to see success and failure in a manner similar to Mrs. Carlson’s plusses and minuses described at the beginning of this post. “Failures” can be successes if they are balanced with successes, are indications of efforts to do great things and are used as lessons learned for future decisions. A fear of failure means a fear of leadership. With great risk, comes the potential for great failure, but also the potential of great success. If you fail, and sometimes you will when you try to do significant things, learn from it, move on, and turn that failure into success the next time.