Leadership Lessons for Clergy from U.S. Presidents

Here are some lessons in leadership from U.S. presidents that clergy, religious educators, and lay leaders can incorporate.

by Victor M Parachin

U.S. presidents have guided the nation to wartime victory, steered the country through a major depression, ended the institution of slavery, and unified the country after a civil war. Although not every president has been an outstanding leader, many have been. Their lives and presidencies offer lessons in leadership for clergy. The Bible reminds all who are in positions of spiritual leadership to “be shepherds of God’s flock. … Serve as their leaders” (1 Peter 5:2, NIrV1).

Here are some lessons in leadership from U.S. presidents that clergy, religious educators, and lay leaders can incorporate.

They Never Stop Learning

Abraham Lincoln described his formal education as “defective.” He grew up in Little Pigeon Creek, a rural Indiana community of less than two-dozen families. Few of them could read and write. Lincoln, who lived there until he was a teenager, often read as he walked along the dirt roads. When he worked various jobs — farmer, rail-splitter, store clerk, postmaster, and militia captain — he read during his breaks.

Cultivating his knowledge base and deepening his mind was a lifelong habit for Lincoln. As a new member of Congress, he read six books of Euclid simply for intellectual exercise. As president, he devoured military histories to better understand military leaders. Lincoln indicated that learning did not come easily to him but the effort was worthwhile. “My mind is like a piece of steel,” he said, “very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” By continuing to read and learn, Lincoln increased confidence in his ability to understand complex issues and then make difficult decisions. There is no indication he felt the need to defer to people who had more formal education.

They Maintain Great Personal Integrity

Though some political leaders are prone to corruption, the best ones value honesty and integrity. During his time as a rancher, Theodore Roosevelt was with one of his cowboys who had just lassoed a 2-year-old steer that no one had branded. The cowboy lit a fire and began preparing the branding iron. The part of the free range they were on belonged to Gregor Lang, one of Roosevelt’s neighbors. According to the rule among cattlemen, the steer belonged to Lang because they found it on his land. As the cowboy prepared to apply the brand, Roosevelt said, “Wait, it should be Lang’s brand.”

“That’s all right, boss,” said the cowboy continuing to apply the brand.

“But you’re putting on my brand,” Roosevelt objected.

“That’s right,” said the man. “I always put on the boss’s brand.”

“Drop that iron,” Roosevelt demanded, “and get back to the ranch and get out. I don’t need you anymore.” When the cowboy protested his firing, Roosevelt was firm. “A man who will steal for me will steal from me.”

They Overcome Adversities and Inspire Others

Shortly after his election, Time magazine described Roosevelt’s success as a “feat of political mountain-climbing.” The writers noted that Roosevelt was “deadest of dead Democrats when defeated for the vice presidency in 1920” and the following year suffered paralysis from the waist down as a result of polio. Living at a time when people in wheelchairs were severely limited professionally, Roosevelt, nevertheless, campaigned and won election as governor of New York before running and winning election as president of the United States. For his remarkable achievements, Time selected him Man of the Year in 1933 stating: “Roosevelt’s climb to the presidency represented a physical triumph of the first order. For a decade he had fought a dogged fight to regain control over his paralyzed legs. Today the President-elect can walk in his braces, without crutch, stick, or assisting arm, about 15 steps. … The Man of the Year’s attitude toward his affliction is one of gallant unconcern.”

Not only did Roosevelt overcome his adversities, but he used his success to inspire others who were struggling. After his November election, he went back to Warm Springs, Georgia, where he lived and established a rehabilitation center for polio victims. There he spoke: “We have shown that we people here have determined to get over the small physical handicaps which after all don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

They Understand the Importance of Preparation

As James Madison and others planned for the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Madison prepared by immersing himself in the study of foreign governments. He read about ancient Rome and Greece as well as other civilizations and confederations. While his contemporaries assumed that no republican form of government would work for as large a geographical area as the United States of America, Madison disagreed. He spoke eloquently and knowledgeably about a republic form of government. His speech had a profound impact on members of the Constitutional Convention who adopted his proposals.

They Know the Power of Humor

Presidents understand the need of humor to lighten their daily burdens. In September 1862, as the Civil War was raging, Lincoln called a special session of his closest advisers. When they arrived he was reading. Lincoln was so engrossed in the book that he paid little attention to their entrance. Then he began reading aloud to them a piece by the humorist Artemus Ward titled, “A High-Handed Outrage at Utica,” which Lincoln found very funny. At the end of the reading Lincoln laughed heartily but no one joined in. His cabinet members stared in disapproval at the president’s frivolity.

“Why don’t you laugh?” Lincoln asked in rebuke. “With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”

Then turning to business Lincoln told them he had recently completed “a little paper of much significance.” It was a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

They Are Passionate About Their Projects

When U.S. presidents take on a project, they do so with passion and conviction. This was true of Thomas Jefferson who founded the University of Virginia in 1819. Initially, there were few rules and regulations to govern the university because Jefferson believed naively that students would take their studies seriously. His trust was misplaced as the misbehavior of students culminated in a riot during which students attacked professors who tried to restore order with bricks and canes.

The following day the university’s board held a meeting with the defiant students. Jefferson, a member of the board, said: “This is one of the most painful events of my life,” and then burst into tears. Those present said no amount of oratory or scolding could have had such an extraordinary effect. Unable to continue, another board member took over the meeting asking rioters to come forward and give their names. Almost every one of them did. One student said afterward, “It was not Mr. Jefferson’s words, but his tears.”

They Are Skillful in Dealing With Issues

When Lincoln was 10 years old, he saw some boys torturing turtles by putting hot coals on their backs. Lincoln did not scold them, battle them, or report them. Instead, he focused on the larger moral principle that cruelty to animals is wrong. Then he composed an essay, read it in class, and argued the point in their one-room school.

Other presidents utilized humor as another way of skillfully dealing with issues. While Calvin Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts, two state senators had an argument that ended in one telling the other he could “go to hell.” The insulted politician went to see Coolidge, asking him to do something about the insult. Coolidge calmly replied: “I have looked up the law, Senator, and you don’t have to go.”

They Accept Responsibility

What distinguishes a successful president from a mediocre one is his ability to accept responsibility, learn from the mistake, and move on. An example is John F. Kennedy. Shortly after his inauguration, he approved an invasion into Cuba to topple dictator Fidel Castro. The Bay of Pigs was a dismal failure and public humiliation for the new president and his administration. Kennedy publicly acknowledged the blunder and took complete responsibility. The result: Americans respected him for it and Kennedy was able to continue moving forward.

They Are Constantly Developing Their Skills

It is tempting to think that U.S. presidents are unusually talented or gifted individuals. They are rather ordinary as this story about Woodrow Wilson reveals. Shortly after his election in 1912, Wilson visited his aged aunt whom he had not seen for some time.

“What are you doing these days, Woodrow?” she inquired.

“I’ve just been elected president,” he responded.

“Oh, president of what?” she asked.

“Of the United States.”

His elderly aunt responded impatiently: “Don’t be silly.”

Presidents are ordinary individuals with extraordinary drive. They establish goals, take advantage of opportunities, are willing to take risks, and continuously develop their leadership skills.

They Continue to Grow and Adapt

After leaving the White House, Jimmy Carter has continued to grow and adapt to an ever-changing world. “My own life has been greatly affected by computers,” he says. “Every day I am at home, I use word-processing software for writing books, newspaper and magazine articles, poems, letters, even my diary. When I am traveling, I stay in touch with Rosalynn and my friends and family by e-mail. I correspond much more now with them than I did when letters had to be written and mailed.”

They View the World With Optimism

Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, Peter Robinson, says: “I originally attributed Ronald Reagan’s constant good humor and equanimity to his having enjoyed an exceptionally lucky life, emerging from an idyllic boyhood in small-town America, to falling effortlessly into a series of ever more successful jobs as a radio sports announcer, a movie and TV star, governor of California, and finally president of the United States. This picture was terribly mistaken.”

Robinson learned that much of Reagan’s success was due to his positive attitude. His father was an alcoholic whom young Ronald sometimes had to drag home. World War II interrupted his Hollywood career as he made military training films. After the war, his first wife, Jane Wyman, won an Academy Award and divorced him, causing Reagan immense pain. After he remarried, his movie career stalled so his new wife — Nancy — returned to work to support the family. “Reagan overcame all of these challenges with his consistently positive attitude,” Robinson says. Rather than resent his alcoholic father, Reagan followed his mother’s advice to love and help his father, never condemning him. After his divorce, he chose not to become bitter and continued to pursue opportunities in the entertainment industry while building a successful marriage with Nancy. When he could not revive his movie career, he took low-paying acting jobs, did TV spots, and became traveling spokesman for General Electric.

One of Reagan’s favorite jokes symbolized his compelling positive attitude. A young boy’s parents took him to a psychiatrist because they thought he was naive and excessively optimistic. The psychiatrist took the boy to a barn pointing out an area piled full of horse manure. Delighted, the boy immediately began digging through the pile with his bare hands. When the psychiatrist asked him what he was doing, the boy replied: “With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

Victor Parachin, freelance writer, Tulsa, Oklahoma


1. Scripture quotations marked NIrV are taken from the
Holy Bible, theNew International Reader’s Version® (NIrV) Copyright ©1996. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide.