What kind of leaders make the best presidents? Lessons from history
Copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers
In such a weird presidential election year, I had a weird idea.
With so much discussion in both parties about experience vs. revolution and “Washington outsiders” versus “The Establishment,” I wondered if we could learn a lesson from history. You see, psychologists and economists agree that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So perhaps if I looked at the 43 men who have already been president, I could see if we have learned something from the last 43 guys who were president that could help us pick the next gal or guy for the job. In particular, I had two questions in mind: 1) What kind of leadership positions did our past presidents have before they became president? 2) What kind of leaders seemed to make the best presidents? Here is what I learned:
Leadership positions of our past presidents
All of our presidents have had at least one of five kinds of leadership experience before becoming president. Of the 43 men, 13 were vice-president, ten were governors, seven were in the cabinet of the president, seven were generals in the Army, and six were in Congress (House or Senate). None of them– not a single one— lacked major experience in American government, unless you can call a general in the U.S. Army outside of the government. That isn’t to say that we cannot elect a businessman or businesswoman or a surgeon as president. It’s just that we have never done that in all of American history. It makes me wonder if there is a good reason for that. (Before somebody says, “Ronald Reagan was an actor,” let me remind you he was governor of California before he became president.)
The kind of leaders who made good presidents
The second question is more difficult to discern. More presidents came to the presidency from the vice-presidency (13), but that’s mostly because being president endangers your life. Of those 13, only five of them got the office on their own. The other eight former vice-presidents came to the office by virtue of the fact that the president died. Ten governors have been president, seven generals, seven in the presidential cabinet, and six came from Congress. But simply counting what position is the most common stepping-stone makes no sense, because some of them were terrible presidents. So why don’t we look at our very best presidents and our worst presidents? This is very subjective, but most scholars and popular opinion polls agree that our best presidents were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. So what leadership positions did they hold before becoming president? Washington was a general, Lincoln served in Congress, FDR was a governor, Teddy Roosevelt was vice-president, and Thomas Jefferson was secretary of state. They were all different! If the list of great presidents doesn’t give us any help, then what about the list of worst presidents? I’ll save you the time– the terrible presidents came from every different background, too, with one exception: governors. We had some governors who were pretty bad, but none of the really, really disastrous presidents came to the White House from a Governor’s Mansion.
The lessons learned
So what does all of this teach us? Great presidents have come from all kinds of different backgrounds, but they have had one thing in common: they had some kind of significant experience that could test their mettle and prepare them for the most challenging leadership job in the world. It doesn’t matter so much what experience they had; it matters more what kind of person they became because of that experience. But maybe, just maybe, all other things being equal, being the chief executive of a state is one of the best preparations for being chief executive of the nation.