Reluctant Leadership

Sometimes the best leaders are those who never sought the leadership spotlight.

Consider our 33rd U.S. President, Harry S. Truman.  When FDR was considering an unprecedented 4th term as president, he wanted a new vice president to replace Henry Wallace.  He ultimately opted for the Senator from Missouri.  However, Truman never wanted to be Vice President.  He was well aware that FDR was in failing health and that whoever was Vice President for the 1944 election would very likely become President.  But when he was pressured into accepting the nomination, he replied, “Oh, [expletive deleted]!”

He served as Vice President for less than 3 months.  Then FDR died of a brain hemorrhage and Truman was sworn in as President.  During those three months as Vice President, Truman was largely out of the loop with regard to FDR’s policies.  In fact, he heard about the Manhattan Project for the first time the very day he was sworn in.  (Josef Stalin, the Soviet Dictator, knew about the Atom Bomb through espionage before Truman knew about it.)

Yet upon becoming President of the United States, Truman blazed a trail of significance.  Consider these examples of sterling leadership:

  • He brought about the unconditional surrender of Japan in World War II, bringing the war to a victorious close and saving countless lives.
  • He launched the Marshall Plan which salvaged wore-torn Europe and help get millions of Europeans back on their feet.
  • He consolidated the various military branches into the Department of Defense.
  • He launched the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • He was instrumental in establishing the state of Israel, and enabled the United States to be the first nation to recognize Israel formally and establish diplomatic relations with the new country.
  • In 1948 when the Soviets blocked access to West Berlin, preventing the United States from continuing to provide food and supplies to the citizens there, Truman ingeniously resolved the stalemate by initiating what became known as the Berlin Airlift.  This enabled thousands of pounds of food and supplies to reach the desperate German people, and did so in a way that avoided a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union.
  • Also in 1948, when he ran against Dewey for reelection, the pundits were so convinced Truman would lose that the Chicago Tribune jumped the gun and ran a headline that read “Dewey Defeats Truman,” which Truman gleefully held up for the cameras, smiling broadly.
  • He handled the very difficult Korean War with determination and grit, driving the North Koreans back to above the 38th parallel, and obtaining a cease fire to end the war.

Once in a private conversation with Peter Drucker, the elder statesman of management theorists, I asked him who he considered to be the greatest U.S. President post-Lincoln.  He unhesitatingly answered in one word: “Truman!”  I never asked him why he believed that.

Now I think I understand.

Perhaps there is something to the idea of reluctant leadership.


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