The Best Leaders Learn From Example


Statue of Harry Truman outside the Jackson County Courthouse in Independence. Photo taken in August 2011

Here is a thought-provoking question that you should consider: What constitutes a great leader? What do you expect from a great leader? What factors influence you to decide for one over the other when the elections take place. And lastly, are you satisfied with the leader of your own country, and why?

When I write this entry, we have two major elections on the horizon: The US Presidential elections this upcoming November and the German Federal Elections in 2013. A lot is at stake, and the fate of the incumbents- Barack Obama and Angela Merkel- will be determined by not only how they ruled their countries, but also on the satisfaction of the voters. If I was asked if I was satisfied with the way the two governments are being run, the answer for both would be a clear-cut “no!”  Both governments have been targets of public scrutiny but for two different reasons. In the case of Merkel, she hired the wrong people to lead Berlin’s ministries because of the scandals they faced- in particular, with Christian Wulff (now replaced with Joachim Gauck as German President) and Karl Theodore zu Guttenberg (now replaced with Guido Westerwelle as Defense Minister). And it is unclear whether her party (CDU)’s partner, the Free Liberals (FDP) will survive the beatings it had already sustained or if it will sink.

In the case of the US government, it is a rather peculiar situation for Obama, as his envision for a better America has become a target of criticism and cynicism by his opponents, including his challenger for the presidential elections this fall, Mitt Romney. Everything that he tried to put through office has either been reversed or voted down by Congress. The lone exception to the rule is the health care reform which was upheld in the Supreme Court, yet if Romney takes office, he vows to dismantle it within 24 hours of swearing into office. Obama however has tried to reach out to the opposition in hopes to work together on solving numerous issues that has plagued America since 2008: high unemployment, a sagging economy, health-related issues affecting Americans, etc. This has proven to be in vain as his attempts have been touted as too soft and the Republicans were not ready to work with a Democrat.

If Obama was to learn from example, it may help him in the long term. During my trip through Missouri this past August, I made an overnight stop at Independence, which was the birthplace of another US President. He was the one who was famous for his “My Way or the Highway” policy and his coined terms “The Buck Stops Here” and “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” He was a man of true grit and did not allow any room for compromise as he pushed his policies through. That gentleman’s name is Harry Truman.

A replica of his office when he was president located at the Truman Presidential Library. Photo taken in August 2011

A son of a farmer and a homemaker, Mr. Truman was born on 8 May, 1884 on a farm outside of Independence. His rise to stardom began when he became a county judge in 1922 and 1930 respectively, which was followed by his 10 years  as Senator (1934-44). He was the running mate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he won his unprecedented fourth term of office in 1944, but was just starting to settle in when the President died on 14 April, 1945 of a hemorrhage of the brain. It was then when he took over and governed the country, going by what was right for the country. He used atomic bombs to submit the Japanese to defeat but refused to do that for the Korean War and fired a feisty Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur for his defiance and insistence on using it. He contained Communism with the Berlin Airlift and supporting the countries that were becoming a target of the domino effect in Europe and Indochina, but picked a fight at Potsdam by looking straight into the eyes of the Russian diplomats in demanding that there is a neutral Germany after the Fall of the Nazis. He recognized Israel by agitating the Arabs who refused to have a Jewish state, but stayed out of conflict when the Israelis drove out every invading neighbor vowing not to recognize the Jewish state. On the home front, he jumpstarted the railway system by threatening to hire strike workers when all train workers went on strike. He alleviated the high unemployment through his fair deal agreements and encouraging former war veterans to go to college. He was the type of person who led the country with an iron fist, despite having a Missourian dialect and not having a degree at a university or college.  While his popularity declined at the end of his eight years in office, most Americans still embraced him as an outstanding but common citizen when he retired to his home with his wife Bess and daughter Margaret in Independence. Even when he was travelling on the road with Bess, he was still treated like a king as he stopped along the way.
What made Truman very popular was simple. He was one of a few people who walked a single independent line, not following the Democrats or the Republicans, not compromising with anybody, and initiating his policies that were to him the right thing to do. He was a person who took on responsibility and made the right decisions on his own terms, hence the term “The Buck Stops Here.” He was also one who never caved into the pressure from the media and other people alike but instead, showed his teeth in every way, shape or form. This is a problem that most politicians today are grappling with for they pass the buck onto others and whitewash themselves at the expense of other people who had nothing to do with the mess that they had caused. Truman kept his promises, whereas many Americans and Germans alike do not remember when was the last time the politicians made and kept a promise, let alone pass measures to the benefit of the public and not that of their own.
The problems facing society in general is huge. The economy is in shambles. Unemployment is high. The socio-economic gaps as well as the racial gaps are wider than ever before. And the number of people responsible for the mess is huge.  But the need of a leader to clean up the mess and take those responsible for the trouble caused to the cleaners is the biggest on the minds of many. Yet politicians gearing up for the Presidential race in the US this year and the German federal elections next year are using media and tactics to make themselves look good at the expense of their opponents, instead of outlining policies that make sense to the public. Already Mitt Romney is slinging mud at Obama even though he championed some of the policies Obama is initiating, especially health care and economic stimulus packages. As for Obama, his soft sides and his lack of experience have ended up with more people with only change in their pockets instead of him keeping his promises of change for America like he did in 2008. In Germany and other European countries, political measures to reduce the debt and help the countries in dire straits are not welcomed and many politicians have been crying foul instead of taking the initiatives to help their own countries first and then the others. And Obama trying to dictate Europe was met with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäubler’s counterattack: “Take care of your mess! It is much bigger than ours!”
It is no wonder that many people are fed up with the leaders of our country and are willing to take action to ensure that the next generation has a tomorrow. Yet extremism is no answer. What is needed is a leader that will set an example for others to follow, through honesty and hard work, strife and sacrifice, dedication to the people and direction, and one that is open but also one who will make the decision and make sure others will follow. Lack of educational background has little importance if a leader has an idea of how to make a country work and become more competitive.
This was something that is admirable for a character like Truman. He did not need an education or special training to become President. All he needed was a plan and a lot of testosterone to lead the country, and the rest listened. Perhaps the candidates should look to Truman as a role model and craft their campaign and planning around his. It does not take money to win the hearts of the public nor deference of responsibly to the other person. It takes a person with guts to look at others in the eye and say “My Way or the Highway,” and take the issues by the horns in defiance with the opposition. This will indeed be the deciding factor in taking us out of the predicament we are in right now.
I would like to finish with a quote about a good leader. Each country is a flame that burns noticeably, rain or shine. It needs no fuel and matches unless one puts it out. It needs not to be bigger as it will create disaster of climatic proportions. It needs to shine for the public to see. The flame is the leader of the country sets an example for the people to follow. In each country there is a person willing to be like Harry Truman. Perhaps our current leaders have yet to show their true colors after a few years of hard time and disappointment. However, there are some who are willing to carry the country out of ruin and into the limelight. It is just a question of who….


The flame still keeps going even after the great ones leave. Photo taken at the Truman Presidential Library in August 2011

One thought on “The Best Leaders Learn From Example”

  1. Your own post, “The Best Leaders Learn From Example | The Flensburg Files” ended up being truly
    worth writing a comment on! Simply wished to announce you truly did a terrific job.
    Many thanks -Katrin

Comments are closed.