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:

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.