A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in Atlanta on vacation. I had been excited for years to go to Atlanta. Not only is the city wonderful (my wife raves about it after having lived there for two years as a graduate student at Georgia Tech), but it’s one of two cities with the “Trifecta”: A ballpark, a Presidential Library, and a State Capitol building.

I enjoyed going to all three, with the icing on top being an Atlanta United vs. DC United game at Mercedes Benz Stadium, which is one of, if not the best place I have ever seen a sporting event. But it was an exhibit at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum that made me think and want to learn more.

The Carter library has an entire exhibit on the Israeli-Egyptian peace process, facilitated by Carter, which took place at Camp David. The exhibit describes the 13-day marathon negotiation that yielded peace between Israel and Egypt. The exhibit displays copies of President Carter’s notes about the personalities of the other two country’s leaders; Prime Minister Menachem Begin from Israel and President Anwar Sadat from Egypt and many pictures and artifacts from the summit.

Carter Library

Photo taken at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum on July 19, 2019

Ultimately, the long negotiation concluded with peace between two neighboring countries, who were previously in an almost constant state of war. The exhibit alone was not enough to satisfy my curiosity, so I read the book Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright.

My main takeaway from the book is that the outcome of a peace treaty from the summit was nothing short of a miracle. The three principle leaders had to set aside both ancient and modern history and religious beliefs just to begin negotiations. The outcome of the talks were constantly in doubt, and the three delegations had personalities that the others could not stand to be around. Even within the delegations there were stark differences of opinion, style, and personalities.

There have been a couple of events recently that have made me reflect on a concept that gets thrown around a lot: diversity. The benefits of creating diverse teams is well documented, yet we still struggle with an enduring distrust in the “other.” This made me wonder if diversity is a relatively new construct for humans. Since international travel is a relatively new concept, did our ancient ancestors only associate with people who were like them? Do we lack the muscle to embrace the other in a way where we can solve problems together like the leaders did at Camp David?

I find that coming to comfortable agreement even among people who share similar backgrounds can be challenging because everyone has a unique perspective. When we layer on history, personality, faith, etc, the odds of reaching agreement or collaborating on the most critical issues of our time get more and more challenging.

It has made me realize that the miracles I believe in are not acts of nature or coincidence, but those instances where diverse people can come together to solve problems. In my experience, diversity of thought and experience tend to make solutions better for all involved. Yet the pull of how we are different from one another can be stronger than the push of our commonalities.

I believe in diverse teams and I thoroughly enjoy living and working in diverse environments. The benefits of living in a diverse society, however, can only be reached if we listen intently to one another and turn off the filters of distrust.

What happened at Camp David was a miracle that produced incredible benefits to the Middle East and the world, ending wars and establishing peace. As leaders, we must help the world embrace diversity and candor to create more of these miracles that produce diverse and inclusive societies.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Diverse groups of people living and working together can produce tremendous benefits. Leaders should embrace diversity, while creating an environment where people from diverse backgrounds can explore their differences, while embracing similarities to create thriving organizations.

Amplify strengths through systematic habits

One of my favorite things about visiting presidential libraries is the fun little nuggets of history that teach profound lessons about leadership and the habits of leaders.

In 2016, I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. I was excited to be there. It was the first presidential library I had visited since going to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston several years beforehand.

My wife and I were dating at the time and we made a several-hour long visit to the library, soaking up the history of the Reagan presidency, the 1980s in the United States, and of course touring Reagan’s Air Force One airplane and Marine One helicopter, which live on permanent exhibit in an all glass hanger in the museum.

While walking through his Air Force One and Marine One were an experience, one exhibit in particular caught my eye. Here is my picture of it:

2016-08-12 10.29.16

The librarians at the Reagan library call this album of index cards the Reagan, “Rosetta Stone”. Although President Reagan was known as, “The Great Communicator,” it turns out that this was not an entirely natural gift. President Reagan’s jobs after acting and before politics required him to make public speeches often. He wrote copious notes about which jokes, anecdotes, and quotes best made his points to an audience. Each note was carefully inscribed on notecard, categorized, and then filed to be pulled at exactly the appropriate time.

Reagan’s speechwriters were often dumbfounded when President Reagan himself would substitute one of their drafted stories in a prepared speech for the perfect anecdote, rehearsed and revised over years of public speaking. This album was so important to President Reagan that the librarians did not find it until 2010, 6 years after his death in a box labeled “RR’s Desk.” The Reagan Library published these notes, with an interesting forward explaining the document, as a book called The Notes. 

For leaders, communication is an imperative. Explaining the mission, vision, and values of an organization, embedding its strategy, and influencing are all rooted in person-to-person communication. President Reagan seemed to have a deep understanding of this and honed this vital skill over many years.

The consistency and discipline it required to develop the album must have been a challenge in its own right. At a time where the only “clouds” were the fluffy white things in the sky, maintaining the album in one place must have been a difficult task.

President Reagan could have relied simply on his experience as an actor and his natural gift of oratory and left it at that. From the numerous clips I’ve seen and heard of his speeches, he had unique talent in this respect. However, perhaps without the sweat equity and organization of The Notes, Reagan would have only been, “The Good Communicator.”

The lesson of The Notes and the “Rosetta Stone” is that to be great, leaders need to develop systematic habits to hone their craft as leaders, communicators, strategists, or coaches. Whether that system is as simple as note cards, or as complex as a coded database, all depends on how it works for the individual leader. Well-designed systematic habits can amplify strengths and round out weaknesses. It’s important for leaders to develop these over time to truly be great.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Systems can be complex or simple. A good systematic habit helps to amplify a leader’s strengths and round out their weaknesses. The Notes provide a neat example of a system one U.S. President used to amplify his gift and strength.

The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom is available for purchase on Amazon for $26.99 (does not include Prime discount)

The leadership goal line

I spent this past weekend traveling across the state of Michigan with my father. I have a goal of visiting every Major League Baseball stadium (I’ve been to 16 active parks of 30), every presidential museum (I’ve been to 4 of 14), and every state capital (I’ve been to 7 of 50). Michigan is one of the states that has all three, so my father and I did a trip out to see the sites starting with Comerica Park in Detroit, stopping in Lansing to see the state capital, and finally ending our trip in Grand Rapids at the Gerald Ford Presidential library.

When we visited Lansing, the city felt empty. The state legislature was not in session and the students at Michigan State University, which is in East Lansing, were on summer break. We toured the capital building, which is currently under substantial renovation. A friendly and knowledgable tour guide took us around the building and we stumbled upon this portrait of former Michigan Governor John Swainson on display in the capital rotunda.


Photo of the state house portrait of Michigan Governor John Swainson (in office 1961-1963) courtesy Michigan State Capital website: http://capitol.michigan.gov/CapitolFacts/

I assumed that the photo was being restored as part of the renovation. However, according to our tour guide, this portrait of Governor Swainson is intentionally drawn to look unfinished. Until 1963, Michigan governors served 2-year terms. Swainson was the final governor to serve a 2-year term and was defeated by Governor George Romney. Swainson asked the artist to incorporate a symbol that he did not get to accomplish as much as he wanted due to his short time in office. In response to the request, the artist drew the portrait to look unfinished.

Fast forward about 24-hours. On our trip and my father and I were visiting the Gerald Ford presidential museum. As you may know, President Gerald Ford is the only person to serve as president who was not elected either as a candidate for president or vice president. Ford became vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned.

The museum dedicated much of its focus to the Watergate scandal and Ford’s choice to pardon Nixon only a month after taking office as president. Pardoning Nixon was unpopular at the time and is considered as the main reason that Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to President Carter. History has been kinder to President Ford’s decision, honoring him for the wise choice of pardoning Nixon and beginning the healing process to help Americans restore trust in government.

Both Swainson and Ford left office feeling unfinished. Swainson had 720 days and Ford had 895 days in office. While history looks kindly on both men, both felt they had more to contribute when their terms were over.

Leaders are trained to be goal oriented, setting SMART goals or FAST goals to align and advance groups. However, opportunities and other circumstances create demands on leaders to be nimble, adjustable, and innovative. Leaders are expected to set vision, create a strategy, align goals, and engage people to make it happen. But rarely does a leader get to see out the vision to completion. What are the implications of leaving a leadership position unfinished?

The lesson I learned from the stories of Governor John Swainson and President Gerald Ford is that many leaders never feel that they are finished. President Ford remained active in public life after his presidency and Governor Swainson went on to serve as a judge among other leadership roles in Michigan. While their executive service may have been the pinnacle of their career, it certainly was not the end of their service as leaders.

It is okay to feel unfinished as a leader. What is most important is how leaders make the lives of their followers and customers better. That is the true leadership goal line.

For both Swainson and Ford, they did that in their own way. Swainson, a double amputee, had his life described as an inspirational story of redemption. Ford was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award by Senator Ted Kennedy, one of his biggest critics for pardoning President Nixon. Both left a legacy of transformational leadership, even though they only served a short amount of time.

I thought this quote from President Ford sums the idea up nicely and captures how he viewed leadership as continuous and never complete: “At my stage in life, one is inclined to think less about date on a calendar than those things that are timeless – about leadership and service and patriotism and sacrifice, and about doing one’s best in meeting every challenge that life presents.”

KEY TAKEAWAY: We can learn from Governor John Swainson and President Gerald Ford that it is okay to feel unfinished as a leader. What is most important is how leaders make the lives of their followers and customers better.