#104: What Can Our Presidents Teach Us About Leadership?

Here in the United States, we are celebrating President’s Day today. Originally instituted in 1885, the holiday was designated to celebrate the birthday of our first president, George Washington. In 1971, the Holiday was renamed President’s Day as a celebration of all our presidents.

George Washington, Leadership

Novelist Michael Crichton is credited with saying, “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree.”

So to avoid being a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree, I thought I would share some of my favorite presidential quotes. I looked for the more unusual quotes—things you may not have heard before, but are worth a moment’s reflection.

Some are about leadership, some are about the role of government, and some are visionary. Whether you agree with their politics or not is less important than learning from the men who shaped our history.

 George Washington 1789-1797

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

John Adams 1797-1801

“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessing on this house (the White House) and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof”

Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809

“That government is best which governs the least because its people discipline themselves.”

James Madison 1809-1817

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

James Monroe 1817-1825

“National honor is a national property of the highest value.”

John Quincy Adams 1825-1829

“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

Andrew Jackson 1829-1837

“I know what I am fit for. I can command a body of men in a rough way, but I am not fit to be President.”

Martin Van Buren 1837-1841

“It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.”

William H. Harrison 1841

“But I contend that the strongest of all governments is that which is most free.”

John Tyler 1841-1845

“Wealth can only be accumulated by the earnings of industry and the savings of frugality.”

James K. Polk 1845-1849

“Public opinion: May it always perform one of its appropriate offices, by teaching the public functionaries of the State and of the Federal Government, that neither shall assume the exercise of powers entrusted by the Constitution to the other.”

Zachary Taylor 1849-1850

“It would be judicious to act with magnanimity towards a prostrate foe.”

Millard Fillmore 1850-1853

“The man who can look upon a crisis without being willing to offer himself upon the altar of his country is not for public trust.”

Franklin Pierce 1853-1857

“The storm of frenzy and faction must inevitably dash itself in vain against the unshaken rock of the Constitution.”

James Buchanan 1857-1861

“There is nothing stable but Heaven and the Constitution.”

Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865

“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Andrew Johnson 1865-1869

“The goal to strive for is a poor government but a rich people.”

Ulysses S. Grant 1869-1877

“I have never advocated war except as a means of peace.”

Rutherford B. Hayes 1877-1881

“It is now true that this is God’s Country if equal rights—a fair start and an equal chance in the race of life are everywhere secured to all.”

James A. Garfield 1881

“I have had many troubles in my life, but the worst of them never came.”

Chester A. Arthur 1881-1885

“Men may die, but the fabrics of our free institutions remain unshaken.”

Grover Cleveland 1885-1889 & 1893 – 1897

“It is the responsibility of the citizens to support their government. It is not the responsibility of the government to support its citizens.”

Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893

“The disfranchisement of a single legal elector by fraud or intimidation is a crime too grave to be regarded lightly.”

William McKinley 1897-1901

“That’s all a man can hope for during his lifetime—to set an example—and when he is dead, to be an inspiration for history.”

Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909

“The only man who makes no mistake is the man who does nothing.”

William Howard Taft 1909-1913

“Next to the right of liberty, the right of property is the most important individual right guaranteed by the Constitution . .”

Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921

“We grow great by dreams. All big men are dreamers.”

Warren G. Harding 1921-1923

“Ambition is a commendable attribute without which no man succeeds. Only inconsiderate ambition imperils.”

Calvin Coolidge 1923-1929

“Character is the only secure foundation of the state.”

Herbert Hoover 1929-1933

“A splendid storehouse of integrity and freedom has been bequeathed to us by our forefathers. In this day of confusion, of peril to liberty, our high duty is to see that this storehouse is not robbed of its contents.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933-1945

“Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.”

Harry S Truman 1945-1953

“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower 1953-1961

“There is nothing wrong with America that the faith, love of freedom, intelligence, and energy of her citizens cannot cure.”

John F. Kennedy 1961-1963

“The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly.”

Lyndon B. Johnson 1963-1969

“A president’s hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right.”

Richard M. Nixon 1969-1974

“A man who has never lost himself in a cause bigger than himself has missed one of life’s mountaintop experiences. Only in losing himself does he find himself.”

Gerald R. Ford 1974-1977

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

James Earl Carter 1977-1981

“We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”

Ronald Reagan 1981-1989

“We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And that makes us special among the nations of the earth.”

George Bush 1989-1993

“If anyone tells you that America’s best days are behind her, they’re looking the wrong way”

William J. Clinton 1993-2001

“We need a spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together. If we have no sense of community, the American dream will wither.”

George W. Bush 2001-2009

“Recognizing and confronting our history is important. Transcending our history is essential. We are not limited by what we have done, or what we have left undone. We are limited only by what we are willing to do.”

Barack H. Obama 2009-

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Join the Conversation

As always questions and comments are welcome. Which of these quotes means the most to you? Why? And if I missed a good presidential quote feel free to share!

I’d love your help. This blog is read primarily because people like you share it with friends. Would you share it by pressing one of the share buttons below?

Category: Skills | Learning

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • John says:

    Ron- enjoyed these presidential quotes. My favorites include Madison, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. We need more men like these today!

  • Lisa Olivarez says:

    A quote that meant a lot to me was by James Earl Carter, and he said “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.” In General I think our society has changed a lot, whether from outside influences like technology, it has shifted to a different perspective and culture. I think for me it is most present in my relationship with my mother she has very definite views of morals and beliefs and it is easy as college student to be exposed to different influences good and bad, so I always try to hold myself to my own principles no matter the situation. And I think this quote captured that internal dissonance that I couldn’t describe.

  • Ariel Wong says:

    My favorite quote is by Martin Van Buren. He says, “It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t”. I feel that completing a task to one’s best ability, taking into account the situation, always gives one a sense of pride and joy. Whenever I do a poor job, I usually feel a sense of shame, unrest, and anger because I know I could have done better. Although I personally feel this way, I get the impression that millennial generation is completely the opposite. Through observation, many of my co-workers do not work and they are paid for their laziness. People care more about the here and now rather than planning ahead and looking forward to the future. Many young people nowadays do not put their heart into what they do, taking no pride in the work they create, and feel unhappy and unsatisfied with their lives. Although it may seem easier to explain why they did not do a good job now, in the future, those excuses end in unemployment.

  • Matthew Alvarado says:

    Our presidents have been some of the greatest and most influential leaders our country has ever seen. From Washington to Obama, and everyone in between, they all have common ground: They all set out to make a difference. That is one thing that leaders should adopt. Just as presidents know their term has to come to an end, so do leaders. There will always be someone who will replace you. But, in my opinion, what defines someone as a leader is how they leave the situation to the person after the . True leaders leave something in better shape than when they inherited it. That is a lesson that we learn from our Presidents. They all have one common goal, to continue to prosper the United States. Leaders should have the same outlook on what ever situation they are placed in. Every leader is set out to make a difference, regardless of the sector or place.

  • Josh Romero says:

    “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – Obama

    I think being a leader is all about being in the moment and taking initiative. People may have their opinions about the job Obama has done but it is still amazing that he was able to break down barriers by becoming the first black president. What that tells me is that he believes in himself and how are people supposed to believe in someone that doesn’t believe in themselves.

    “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” – Michael Jordan

  • Samuel Han says:

    I enjoyed reading the quotes made by the presidents of the United States. More than enjoying it brought me a sense of identity of I can believe to achieve as asserted by the presidents of the United States. For what the believed in were one common goal: which is to bring the United States to a better more prosperous state than non-other. The quotes left by the presidents were common in providing for the poor, looking in the further future, and making a change of what needs to be changed. The very beginning of the essay before the quotes where, “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree.” I believe this assertion to be a true notion because an individual, community, and government are the accumulation of the past and to know the past and history is to know what tradition “we/Americans” were thrown into in our birth in the United States. Knowing who we are and how we are is crucial in the progress of our change and development as a more prosperous and better country!