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President Truman's leadership lessons inspire leaders today

  • Published
  • By Col. Tracey Hayes
  • 90th Missile Wing commander
Who is the leader you most admire? If you've never thought about it or no one has sparked your interest, I encourage you to start searching. It is said that history creates the best lessons. When examining leadership qualities and what makes a great leader, this is most certainly true. The leader I most admire is unquestionably President Harry S. Truman. My interest in Truman started during my studies at the Joint Advanced Warfighting School. Since then, I've tried to read as much as I can about his leadership traits and why he made certain decisions during his presidency. I have visited the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo., and enjoyed it so much, I plan on visiting again. Truman's leadership lessons can be summed up as integrity and accountability, team building and humility.

Truman became president in 1945 following President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death -- after a mere 82 days as the Vice President. Roosevelt kept Truman ill-informed, and because of this, when Truman became president, he was ill-prepared. Despite his poor preparation, Truman's legacy would marvel historians and David McCullough would write an 1100 page book titled Truman, examining his presidency, a period marked by some of the toughest times in our nation's history. During his two terms, which included a surprise victory to win his second term over Thomas Dewey, Truman ordered the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, halted communists in Turkey and Greece, initiated the Marshall Plan, coordinated the Berlin Airlift with NATO, ordered desegregation of the armed forces, established the CIA and the Defense Department, committed U.S. forces to Korea and upheld the principle of civilian control over the military by firing Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Through all these events, the leader of the free world taught the American people about leadership.

One of Truman's most widely acclaimed quotes was, "The buck stops here." This saying was on a placard that he kept on his desk in the Oval Office. The saying "the buck stops here" derives from the slang expression "pass the buck" which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. Avoiding this leadership pitfall, Truman's presidency was defined by accountability and integrity, accepting full responsibility for the success and failure of his decisions -- most notably his decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II. In his farewell address to the American people given in January 1953, Truman referred to this concept very specifically, asserting that, "The president -- whoever he is -- has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job." How many times have you had to make a tough decision then stand by that decision as you endured the consequences? If you have never been in that situation, how would you handle the stress?

Truman enlisted in the Missouri National Guard to serve in World War I. Army Capt. Truman was the Battery D Commander of the 129 Field Artillery Regiment. He was highly admired by the nearly two hundred men of Battery D primarily due to the team he built, which was grounded upon mutual respect, character and humility. These professional qualities kindled lifelong friendships and contributed to success in combat. His motto for his team building approach to leadership was, "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." Think about the leaders you've witnessed during your military career. If those leaders are building a strong team, rarely will one hear the words: "I, me, mine," but rather, "us, we, our."

After he left the presidency, Truman was close to destitute. For some time he only received his Army pension of just over $120 per month. He turned down many commercial offers that could have made him a very rich man by capitalizing on the office of the presidency. He declined these offers using the following reason: "You don't want me. You want the office of the president, and that doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the American people and it's not for sale." Truman defined humility as the ability to "make a right estimate of oneself." Through all the turmoil he endured during his presidency, he never once forgot where he was from or overestimated his capabilities. Rather, he remained a simple man trying to do the right thing in a complex world.

There are so many lessons from Truman as evidenced by the book Truman, but this article is to serve as a motivator to perhaps increase your curiosity. It's never too late to find that leader and glean important leadership lessons from their experiences. Find someone who inspires you and then go learn from their mistakes and successes, this will make you a better leader and strengthen our Air Force.