Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Leadership Genius of Harry Truman, Part III

This is the third installment in a series of articles on the leadership traits of Harry S. Truman, former president of the United States. You may read Part I here, and Part II here. Detailed articles of this sort will be a weekly feature on this blog, and several historic leaders will be examined this year.

Part III: Read Voraciously

When President Truman died in December of 1972, archivists at the Truman Library began cataloging his personal library. They were astounded to learn that Truman possessed, and had read, several thousand books. This does not count the books checked out from the Independence Public Library over a lifetime, and those borrowed from the Library of Congress during his Senate term.

Despite poor eyesight, Harry Truman read almost constantly (he claimed to have read every book in the Independence Library by the time he was 18). He also had an uncanny knack for retaining what he read. In his book, Mr. Citizen, Truman recalls that, when faced with a complex decision, he would study a leader from the past who had to make a similar decision. Every night Truman would read about this particular leader just before going to bed. Within just a few days, he would have settled upon his approach to tackling the issue at hand.

Truman became a student of history and a student of great leaders and great people. To be sure, he had a natural interest in this sort of thing. However, he also correctly realized that the past is merely a prelude, and that there are lessons to be learned from important figures throughout history.

During World War I, Truman was a captain in the Army, commanding a field artillery battery made up of unruly young men from the Kansas City area. He whipped the boys into shape using tactics he learned by reading the biography of Civil War general and former President U. S. Grant.

Following the war, former members of Truman’s battery would hang out at his haberdashery in Kansas City, seeking advice from “Captain Harry.” On one occasion, a young former soldier asked Truman for advice on books that every successful man should read. Following is Truman’s recommended reading list:

  1. Plutarch’s Lives
  2. Caesar’s Commentaries
  3. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
  4. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  5. Bunker Bean
  6. Missouri’s Struggle for Statehood
  7. The Bible
  8. Plato’s Republic
  9. Shakespeare’s works, including the Sonnets
  10. The complete works of Robert Burns
  11. Childe Harold
  12. Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World
  13. Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution

It must be pointed out that Harry Truman did not attend college. He applied for the Naval Academy and West Point, but was rejected due to poor eyesight. His personal finances simply did not allow for higher education. However, by examining the above reading recommendations, it is clear that Truman was an educated man, and was well prepared for the challenges that faced him during his White House years.

It was Truman who said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” The average CEO in America reads 4-5 books per month, while the average American reads but one book per year. To be a leader means to be a learner – constantly.

Chances are other people have faced problems much like yours, and chances are much has been written about them and their approach to such difficulties. Very few people ever take advantage of this great repository of knowledge and experience available.

Action Point: Visit your local public library regularly and purposefully become a student of history. You should also begin to build your own personal library as funds allow. If you hold a leadership position, begin a systematic study of great leaders. You will soon see patterns emerge that are common to all great leaders, and you will begin the process of developing your own leadership style. The more you know about history, the better you will be able to determine where to go for specific answers as to how to handle a problem you are facing. The solution has already been discovered, you just need to get into the habit of looking for it.

Note: You can find out of print books at great prices by visiting Abe Books. I have purchased several titles for $1.00 plus shipping.

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