In politics, the dogmatic leader is rarely as successful as the pragmatist. So too in the world of business, where a CEO who leads from the centre and respects consensus is the CEO who is an effective leader. Readers of this article will learn from history how to lead from the centre and how to be a leader that unifies and wins lasting respect.

As the CEO of the White House and the nation, being POTUS – insiders’ acronym for President of the United States – may be the toughest executive job in the world. The stakes are high, the scope is vast, the scrutiny intense, the criticism constant. “You’ll find that no easy problems ever come to the President of the United States,” Dwight Eisenhower warned John Kennedy. “If they are easy to solve, somebody else has to solve them.” The U.S., indeed the world, is particularly focused on the U.S. presidential leadership at the moment because we have such high hopes for President Obama.

Eisenhower’s phrase “no easy problems” seems to all too well to capture today’s corporate challenges. What, if anything, can CEOs of large firms learn from U.S. presidential leadership? The answer is “A lot.” At the core of this article we will outline some key lessons for CEOs trying to stickhandle their way through the most tumultuous times anybody under 80 can remember. We will draw on Gil Troy’s study of the best and worst of U.S. presidential leadership. At the core is learning to lead from the center.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, senators Obama and McCain, both said they hoped to lead from the center, to restore a sense of temperance, civility and unity after the divisive Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. Both seemed to have identified the needed leadership tonic for these times. But leading from the center entails more than delivering soothing speeches or forging legislative compromises. Many talented politicians in the Oval Office have committed rookie mistakes most experienced CEOs would have avoided. Lyndon Johnson intimidated and humiliated staffers, discouraging them from delivering bad news and alternative perspectives, the essential reality-checks leaders need. Rather than inspiring his aides, Richard Nixon shared and fed their fears, creating a White House of co-conspirators some of whom ultimately betrayed each other – and him. Jimmy Carter interrupted his presidency to consult experts about the country’s direction at Camp David, unaware that displaying such weakness undermined Americans’ faith in him. Ronald Reagan allowed staffers to run a rogue Iran-Contra operation, with his wink-wink, nudge-nudge consent but without his supervision.

Fortunately, there are inspiring models for us to study too. America’s greatest chief executives were visionary executives who understood that the delicate dance of democracy usually requires a light but sure touch. Like a large, sprawling corporation, a country needs a leader to set a tone, chart a course, put out fires, and make the tough calls. A successful president, like a successful CEO, has to consider followers’ morale among the many other factors that shape decision-making. Center seeking and consensus building help foster a sense of camaraderie and a commitment to a broader mission necessary for group success. We believe that this tracks to the larger move from a shareholder model to a stakeholder model, where a CEO must see the world as more complex and with greater subtly than in the past. Even closer to home in the C-Suite itself, where the CEOs direct reports live, an excellent CEO realizes that he or she too must lead from the centre. In the C-Suite context it means balancing the often conflicting demands of the senior team, not favoring one executive continually over others but allowing a course which is seen as fair but demanding and occasionally tough minded. Knowing what to avoid is often as important as knowing what to embrace. Just as Al Gore teaches about minimizing our carbon footprints, successful executives must minimize their toxic footprints, leaving a legacy of good feeling not bad faith.

A center-seeking CEO and POTUS will remember George Washington’s lesson that civility is contagious, as he spent much of his tenure managing squabbling subordinates, trying to keep them focused on “our common cause” not their conflicting agendas. A moderate CEO and POTUS will mimic Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatism, noting that Lincoln positioned the country to abolish slavery eventually – after the Civil War — by first keeping the union united and inviolable. Similarly, great leaders consolidate gains that are attainable while stubbornly seeking ever-loftier goals. An effective CEO and POTUS will master Franklin Roosevelt’s skills, infusing a sense of mission throughout the bureaucracy, by articulating the vision and by occasionally leapfrogging down through the chain of command to quiz lower-level managers about the facts on the ground.

Ultimately, great leadership in the White House and in corporate headquarters is not formulaic. There is no recipe for good judgment, for knowing when to hold and when to fold. But our leaders can learn from the past how others built cultures of cooperation and civility that flourished.

America’s greatest presidents were muscular moderates, balancing conviction with compromise, big-picture symbols with step-by-step spadework, and a future-oriented vision of change with a clear-eyed assessment of reality. From where we sit, this seems like what we are looking for in today’s CEOs. Center seeking is easier said than done, but a thoughtful moderate approach can generate great change while preserving the delicate web of good feeling and collective commitment great leaders weave among their followers to maximize productivity constructively. Let’s now briefly consider the stories of how four presidents led. In each case we will draw key lessons from what he faced and how he acted, lessons that are valuable for today’s CEOs.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Facing an economic hurricane and seeking new paths forward

In running his administration, as with leading the people, Franklin D. Roosevelt saw himself as an orchestra conductor. From 1933 to 1945 he made beautiful music out of many individual, potentially discordant sounds by dominating center stage while also allowing subordinates the occasional solos. His speechwriter, Raymond Moley, first fumed when Roosevelt received two contrasting tariff policy speeches during the 1932 campaign and advised: “Weave the two together.” But gradually, Moley saw how Roosevelt balanced bold leadership with agile, even inconsistent, policy making. Moley soon concluded, “If we can’t get a president with a fluid mind, we shall have some bad times ahead.”

This fluidity became clear during Roosevelt’s much-improvised First Hundred Days. From the start, Roosevelt captured the public imagination, giving an impression of progress as he branded his program “the New Deal.” The flurry of activity and new policies set a standard for all future presidents, who now chart what they do during their first three and a third months. The president’s dazzling round of activities burst through traditional logjams. Tacking left, his Emergency Banking Act of March 9, 1933, enabled the government to keep weak banks closed and certify strong banks’ solvency. A hastily assembled group of officials occasionally consulted with bankers as they rushed to draft the legislation. “We had forgotten to be Republicans or Democrats,” Moley later recalled. “We were just a bunch of men trying to save the banking system.” A CEO at the best times can articulate the vision in a way which draws the senior team together and allows them to put aside conflicting agendas in order to push forward to a larger dream. Front- line troops in a big organization need a sense of purpose today more than ever. This is part of the tenure of our times, particularly among people under 30. Holding up the big vision of the organization and calling people to be part of something noble and worthy is, to our minds, a crucial role for today’s CEO.

Like Lincoln, Roosevelt was a strong leader, confident enough to hire strong personalities—and strong enough to dominate them. By constantly picking different favorites and crafting positions from advisers’ various suggestions, he kept his aides off balance yet incredibly productive. One bitter feud pitted the irascible Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, against the crusading relief worker, Harry Hopkins. Ickes, controlling the Public Works Administration (PWA), preferred carefully planned, centralized building initiatives. Hopkins, who would control the rival Works Progress Administration (WPA), advocated a multitude of decentralized programs to employ millions immediately. Roosevelt invited both on a presidential cruise to bond. But he also undermined Ickes, implying that Ickes would control all public works programs while actually shifting significant power to Hopkins.

Roosevelt frequently sidestepped conflict by being similarly opaque. When a Washington Star headline announced that “ICKES IS SHORN OF PWA POWER,” Ickes exploded. “I never thought I would talk to a president of the United States the way I talked to President Roosevelt,” Ickes later confessed. Ever charming, Roosevelt calmed Ickes, promising to issue a press release affirming Ickes’s status as PWA’s administrator. Still, Roosevelt maintained Hopkins’s authority and did not apologize to Ickes.

As a centrist, Roosevelt also wielded executive power cautiously. He was happily cruising from the Caribbean to Oregon via Hawaii when labor violence prompted the radical unionist Harry Bridges to call a general strike in San Francisco for July 16, 1934. One hundred thousand striking workers soon paralyzed the California city. Many Americans feared the long-dreaded revolution was arriving. “Everybody demanded that I sail into San Francisco Bay, all flags flying and guns double shotted and end the strike,” Roosevelt said. “They went completely off the handle.”

Roosevelt knew that interrupting his vacation would risk starting the panic he was determined to prevent. He did not mobilize the National Guard, counting on this being taken as a demonstration of respect for labor. His inaction deprived the strikers of a focal point for their anger, a violent clash with citizen-soldiers, and a way to nationalize the issue. The strike whimpered to an end four days later. The Longshoremen’s union won recognition and Roosevelt earned labor’s respect.

Reagan: Optimism in the face of adversity and value-centered leadership

Ronald Reagan understood politics as being the art of the possible, sweetened by lofty dreams of the improbable. Governing California from 1967 through 1975, he refused to “jump off the cliff with the flag flying if you can’t get everything you want.” He recalled, “If I found when I was governor that I could not get 100 percent of what I asked for, I took 80 percent.” Governor Reagan’s moderate abortion and welfare policies belied his fiery rhetoric. “You want a principled man, which Reagan is,” the economist Milton Friedman said during the 1980 presidential campaign. “But he is not a rigidly principled man, which you don’t want.”

Running for President in 1980, Ronald Reagan appealed to mainstream Americans as the avatar of 1950s nationalism. He believed the country that framed the Constitution, settled the West, freed the slaves, industrialized the continent, and crushed the Nazis could handle the 1980s. Appealing across the partisan aisle, he frequently delivered glittering generalities about American greatness while his advisers tried to obscure his occasional prickly pronouncements romanticizing the Vietnam War and dismissing the dangers of car pollution.

The contradictions of the campaign would be the paradoxes of his presidency. “Let Reagan be Reagan,” his conservative allies would plead, yearning for Reagan the right-winger. Yet in balancing, in contradicting, in talking “right” while staying in the center, in slinging sentiment to cloak substance, Reagan was being Reagan.

Just as Franklin Roosevelt, the master showman, told two speechwriters fighting over contradictory policies to “weave the two together,” Ronald Reagan settled arguments between clashing aides by smiling and saying, “Okay, you fellas work it out.”

In the White House from 1981 through 1989, Reagan preferred big- picture governing – carefully choosing his battles, marshaling his strength, delegating most issues to subordinates. He boasted about being a 9-to-5 leader, and more CEO than micromanager. More specifically, on the domestic side he cared less about budget cuts and more about tax cuts, defense increases, and deregulation. Addicted to the welfare state status quo, Americans were unwilling to go cold turkey. Lacking a Republican majority in Congress, Reagan could not turn America abruptly to the right.

A big-picture patriot, Reagan believed in compromising, having learned how to negotiate by confronting the studio head Jack Warner. He compromised on his tax and budget cuts’ timing, scope, and duration. Reagan understood that even if the numbers were more modest than he hoped, he won by securing any budget and tax cuts, especially both together.

Instead, Reagan adjusted the country’s navigating coordinates, tweaking accepted ideas. America’s ship of state tacked right a few degrees. This mid-course correction’s impact emerged years later, even as the New Deal welfare state survived. Reagan sensitized Americans to the dangers of deficits while generating obscene budget deficits. Nevertheless, his legacy of attacks on budget overruns, high taxes and big government, outlasted both the Reagan deficits and any lingering embarrassment regarding his hypocrisy.

Reagan intuitively saw modern leadership as salesmanship. Staffers used the president’s appealing personality to stabilize their volatile legislative coalition. “If you can write a nation’s stories, you needn’t worry about who makes its laws,” said George Gerbner, the communications scholar.

Reagan excelled as storyteller in chief, reconstituting America’s communal narrative so he could get credit for resurrecting the center and bringing on “Morning in America.” “The American electorate seeks from its national leadership this sense of shared values, this reaffirmation of traditional American beliefs,” Reagan declared in 1983. “They do not want a President who’s a broker of parochial concerns; they do . . . want a definition of national purpose, a vision of the future.” CEOs and executives need the Regan skill of storytelling in order to communicate the organizational narrative in a compelling and emotionally engaging manner. That is a key element in today’s leadership.

Kennedy: Maturing toward transformational leadership

The legend of John F. Kennedy portrays a young, vigorous leader mobilizing Americans with the poetry of his words, the clarity of his vision, and the decency of his actions. Illustrating the power of presidential rhetoric in shaping American nationalism, John Kennedy’s greatest lines are marbleized in stone and etched in our collective hearts. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” is an alluring American aphorism that every president since has failed to top.

John Kennedy’s civil rights speech of June 1963 helped build the myth. Appalled by police violence against peaceful protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, the president pointed Americans toward the path of righteous reform. Speaking partially extemporaneously and partially from a text hastily written by his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, just five minutes before the red television lights flashed on, Kennedy spoke from his heart. Defining civil rights as a moral issue, he made the quest for racial equality a national crusade “as old as the Scriptures and . . . as clear as the American Constitution.”

Actually, the historical facts are messier than this one-dimensional, inspiring story. Initially, Kennedy was uninterested in civil rights’ great moral challenge and preferred dodging conflict. When an African diplomat driving on Route 40 between Washington and New York was refused any service, even a glass of water, at a rest stop, the international denunciations embarrassed Kennedy. “Tell them to fly,” Kennedy barked to the State Department protocol officer.

Similarly, when Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. first met after Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, the president sounded sympathetic but withheld resources. “If we go into a long fight in Congress, it will bottleneck everything else and still get no bill,” the president feared. “He’s got the understanding and he’s got the political skill,” King told Kennedy’s aide, Harris Wofford, about the president, “but the moral passion is missing.”

Yet Kennedy’s patriotic calls for optimism, idealism, and self-sacrifice resonated more widely than he anticipated. “Negroes are getting ideas they didn’t have before,” Kennedy’s one black adviser, Louis Martin, reported in 1962, impressed by the Freedom Riders and other initiatives. “Where are they getting them?” Kennedy wondered. “From you!” Martin replied. “You’re lifting the horizons of Negroes.”

Eventually, President Kennedy acted. His handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis made him feel more secure in his power and ready to be bold yet temperate. The cumulative impact of the growing Southern white violence infuriated him and motivated him. The ever-present nuclear threat made him think more clearly about America’s future and his own legacy.

Most of Kennedy’s advisers, except his brother Bobby, warned that the Civil Rights initiative would fail and undermine his standing. But Kennedy persisted. “There comes a time when a man has to take a stand and history will record that he has to meet these tough situations and ultimately make a decision,” Kennedy told Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges.

Kennedy’s conversion demonstrates the power of positive center seeking. Moderates risk being immobilized by the status quo, never facilitating bold changes no matter how necessary. John Kennedy helped implement the most radical American initiative since slavery ended, a legal push for full African American civil rights. By leading, waking up to the issue’s moral stakes, and explaining it to the nation, Kennedy helped mainstream the civil rights movement. In so doing, he helped America regain its soul. The leader of such a diverse and complicated country cannot be a radical change agent. Still, John Kennedy’s awakening to the civil rights challenge in 1963 demonstrated one modern president’s power to adapt and lead constructively, effectively, moderately, and progressively. Again we return to one overarching theme of a employees wanting a sense of larger mission and meaning. Just think of how inspiring Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon was, not only to Americans, but so many others around the world!

George W. Bush: Opportunity squandered

Hollywood hero-politicians always stand on principle, be it Jimmy Stewart filibustering the Senate in 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or Martin Sheen’s President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet on NBC’s “The West Wing,” charming millions with his righteousness and rectitude. Yet, in reality, politics is the art of compromise. Conviction politicians risk being imprisoned by ideology, handcuffed to the world they wish to see rather than adjusting to the world as it is. George W. Bush’s administration foundered on the shoals of his rigidity. The parallels to the CEO who will not change in the face of a dramatically different economy are obvious. Bush demonstrated an historic inability to improvise effectively amid domestic disaster in New Orleans and the overseas mess in Iraq. Bush’s staffers believed he was a leader like Ronald Reagan, rooted in his ideology and thus shaping the world. In fact, Reagan’s success came from having a vision but also in knowing how to bargain, when to yield, and how to declare victory after compromising.

Karl Rove, the political consultant often touted as Bush’s “brain,” wanted to energize “the base.” He estimated that three to four million evangelicals had not voted for Bush in 2000. Rove’s governing and re-election strategies focused on recapturing those voters, who were culturally conservative and suspicious of big government.

Rove sought the winning margin, even if it would be narrow. One Democratic senator proposed minor changes to make the tax cuts of 2001 less favorable to the wealthy and more palatable to the majority. The senator promised Rove that with those changes “I guarantee you’ll get seventy votes out of the Senate.” Rove replied: “We don’t want seventy votes. We want fifty-one.” The Senator voted for the bill anyhow, but the resentment lingered – and such anecdotes circulated.

Unlike Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush advanced the conservative social agenda and the libertarian economic vision. Bush’s “faith-based initiative” mobilized churches to tackle social problems – and terrified liberals as an intrusion of the church on the state. He rejected the Kyoto protocols to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and terrified environmentalists that he would despoil the planet.

Most dramatically, George W. Bush did not falter during the tense build-up to the Iraq war in March 2003. Rarely in this age of poll-driven politics had an American leader defied so much of the conventional wisdom, dismissed so many domestic and international “experts,” so boldly and so calmly. He also did not adjust, learn, mollify, or compromise. The only time Bill Clinton showed such determination was during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and that was to save himself. Even before America entered World War II, Franklin Roosevelt was subtler than Bush. Roosevelt built to war through half-steps such as the Lend-Lease program, and only achieved clarity after Pearl Harbor.

From one perspective, Bush’s move into Iraq was heroic and historic. Had stability followed after Saddam Hussein fell, historians would hail Bush as courageous, visionary. And while it is circular to say that had he succeeded in Iraq he would have been a success, in a democracy, the riskier the step, the faster and clearer the success must be.

But Bush’s rigidity and his failure to build a consensus ruined his presidency when Iraq became a quagmire. Bush appeared imprisoned by his convictions. The hurricane Katrina disaster tarnished his reputation as a competent crisis manager. His famous loyalty to subordinates became a liability, as he allowed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to stay on far too long – then had him resign immediately after the Republicans suffered a major defeat in the 2006 Congressional elections. And even though Bush would find some vindication with the successful “surge” of troops in Iraq, his failure to reach out, to build consensus, left America deeply divided. He left office with the lowest poll ratings since surveys began in the 1930s.

Leading from the centre: For the CEO

What does it mean to a CEO to lead from the centre? Two core ideas strike us. First, it is to continue to the transition from a shareholder to a stakeholder view of the corporation. This more European approach is one that seems to be the path being taken by American corporations more and more. For the CEO it means having to take on board the differing and sometimes conflicting agendas of a number of stakeholders and successfully negotiating a path that will meet the legal and regulatory requirements, and be acceptable to the various stakeholder groups. It is not dissimilar to what any president must do.

Secondly, it is lead from the centre within the confines of the C-suite. Each C-Suite occupant got there because they have learned their craft well and have worked as a talented, successful individual. Undoubtedly, they have learned to be a team player or they would have not succeeded as they have. Yet for the most senior ranks the need to be a team player goes beyond a requirement to be a necessity in most organizations. The CEO must lead from the centre when working with his or her direct reports, those in the C-Suite. This can be a very fine balancing act that requires the finesse of a Roosevelt at times.

However, leading from the centre is more than just teamwork. There is often a conflict pull from the other side of the decision. This conflict is both necessary and welcome. The challenge is finding a balance. The ability to get buy-in from different people with multiple perspectives and agendas is a valuable skill, and one that has been demonstrated by several past U.S. presidents. There may be hesitation to adopt this leadership style for fear of being perceived as weak, particularly by those who opinions differ. However the curse of rigidity, as best demonstrated by President Bush, is too big a risk to take, particularly when leading through change or crisis.

Finally, around the world executives watch the U.S. President as probably the most important chief executive in the world. We hope we have encouraged executives to study the four presidents we have looked at for lessons in leadership, both good and not so good. Whether it be Kennedy’s coming to a mission worthy of his best efforts, Reagan’s value-based leadership tempered by his willingness to bend without compromise, each president speaks to us about the nature of leadership and suggests possibilities of how to better lead.

About the Author

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make….Read Gil Troy's full bio

About the Author

Karl Moore, is an Associate Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University and an Associate Fellow at Green Templeton College, Oxford University. 

About the Author

Karl Moore, is an Associate Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University and an Associate Fellow at Green Templeton College, Oxford University.