The Best and Worst Presidential Leaders in History
How Do Our 42 US Presidents Rank as Leaders? (Part Two of Three)
Where does your favorite President of the United States rank in terms of business leadership in the new millennium? Could all or any of the US Presidents successfully run a large corporation today? Did they have what it takes to be a true leader or were they more concerned about themselves and their legacy? Were their decisions sound and founded on unwavering principles, or were they constantly swayed by the winds of political expediency and public opinion?
Running the United States and running a large, for-profit corporation have more similarities than differences. Whom would we choose to run our company if we had our pick from the 42 men who served as President of the United States?
The editors at AskTheManager.com scoured the history books and looked deeply at each President’s record as a leader. We ignored the popularity of their decisions and judged these men solely on the traits that we feel make a good leader: the ability to execute; honor; intelligence; character; and, most of all, service. To determine the final rankings, we graded each President on six weighted categories: humility; delegation; integrity; vision; success (during their term); and (impact on) future (generations).
This is the second article in a three-series post. Please see yesterday’s post by following this link for our “worst to first” rankings of the US Presidents.
Today we bring you the leadership ranking of the Presidents, with the promised notes associated with each:
The Top 10 Presidential Leaders of All Time
The greatest Leader-Presidents ever, we’d happily serve under any of these 10 distinguished men:
1. George Washington (1789-1797)
Entrepreneurs understand how hard it is to start a new business, imagine starting a whole country! Often underrated, Washington is truly a “leader’s leader” in that he was always able to get the most out of other leaders, without hurting their egos or resulting to power struggles. In 1787, he presided over the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the United States Constitution and two years later he became the first President of the United States. An enlightened leader, Washington even used his farewell speech to warn against the pitfalls of partisanship and involvement in foreign wars. Kind of makes you wish the other 41 men on this list would have listened to him, doesn’t it? AskTheManager proudly proclaims George Washington as the Best Presidential Leader of all time.
2. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
The 16th President of the United States, Lincoln led the US through it’s greatest crisis – the Civil War. Throughout his life and his Presidency, Lincoln showed great regard for his fellow man and a tremendous sense of honor and integrity. If not for Washington, Lincoln would be number 1 – but number 2 on this list isn’t a bad thing. For all Lincoln accomplished from a leadership point of view, he is the 2nd best President who ever served.
3. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, e’s on Rushmore for a reason, and in some ways he was the most successful Leader-President ever. He was a selfless leader who was one of the first to embrace “empowerment” by advocating states rights. Though he didn’t always agree with his own decisions, he chose a path he felt was the best for this country. As a leader, Thomas Jefferson is the 3rd best President of all time.
4. Harry S Truman (1945-1953)
“The Man From Independence” made the toughest decision in the history of the US Presidency: to be the first and only world leader to drop nuclear weapons on his enemies. His decision no doubt saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and effectively ended World War II. TheManager asks: would any of us be willing to make the same decision for the sake of freedom? Nearly hated when he left office, he was a humble leader who executed his agenda very well. Truman is clearly the 4th best Leadership President ever.
5. John Adams (1797-1801)
It’s tough being second. While John Adams was only a one-term President, he was actually a very competent, if not reluctant, leader. He life story is dotted with chapters of selflessness and sacrifice. He never seemed to put himself ahead of the needs of the country or the mission at hand. A great Adams’ story involves the defense of British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Despite his feelings for the British Government and facing a loss of reputation in America, Adams vigorously defended the eight soldiers against the charges. Because his Presidency could also be characterized as one of service to the people, John Adams is the 5th best Leader-President ever.
6. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the consummate leader of his time. He defied his party (he was a Democrat) to pass a conservative Republican-backed initiative to create the Federal Reserve System. Most men would have towed the party line, though Wilson did what he felt was best for America. He understood that he served us, rather than the other way around.
7. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
One of the last honest Presidents, Jimmy Carter was the first true environmentalist to ever hold the office (don’t try to tell us about Roosevelt, Carter actually cared about the environment). Though vilified by some, he showed great courage in boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in the Soviet Union – even though this move likely cost him a second term. Carter was never concerned with himself or his cronies, and once asked for the resignation of several of his cabinet members. Carter was one of the most selfless Presidents to ever serve the United States, and he seemed grateful every day that America allowed him to serve.
8. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
FDR served four terms (a record, of course) and created government programs back when we actually needed government programs. Without the New Deal, we probably would have been in a recession at least another two or three years. Not really worthy of Mt. Rushmore in TheManager’s view, but still not bad given the alternatives. FDR did what he did to help America — a true servant leader.
9. James K. Polk (1845-1849)
Polk made the Top Ten primarily because he exercised leadership skills in the 1840s that would be admired today. More specifically, Polk knew how to execute. If he set an agenda, Polk accomplished it. While President, he oversaw the expansion of territory in the US by more than 750,000 square miles. He was a great negotiator and very adept at foreign policy. Though he was the 11th US President, James K. Polk is the 9th best Leadership President of all time.
10. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)
Cleveland is the only US President to ever serve two non-consecutive terms. Technically speaking, he was our 22nd and our 24th Presidents. Known as a President dedicated to his principles, he is most often characterized as honest, intelligent and independent. Just the qualities we’re looking for in a True Leader. Deservedly so, Grover Cleveland is the 10th Best Presidential Leader of All Time.
The Above Average Presidential Leaders
Above average among this group says you were something special. These fourteen Presidents clearly distinguished themselves by providing exceptional leadership during their terms in office:
11. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
The Great Communicator should have been called The Great Delegator. Ronald Reagan epitomized leading through others, and was so respected at the end of his first term that he won 49 of 50 states (what were you thinking Minnesota?) in the 1984 Presidential Election. His hard stance on Communism during the Cold War was a 180 on the detente of the previous administration, and eventually led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. If not for record (at the time) deficit spending during his term, he would likely rank in the top ten.
12. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
We like Ike, really we do. What we really like about President Eisenhower is he had the ability to forgo immediate gratification for the sake of the future. Most of his greatest accomplishments benefited those not even alive during his Presidency. The US Interstate Highway System and America’s space program are just two examples of his visionary leadership. Even forgetting that he successfully led the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, Ike clearly deserves to be ranked as the 12th Best Leader-President in history.
13. (tie) William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
Taft’s determined action against trusts and his strengthening of the Interstate Commerce Commission prove he believed his mission as President was not to glorify himself, but to leave a lasting legacy on the people of the United States. Although Teddy Roosevelt helped him get elected to his first term, he chose principles over party for the second term and broke with the self-centered Roosevelt. An honorable man, Taft served as a capable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for nearly nine years after he left office.
13. (tie) James Monroe (1817-1825)
The Presidency of James Monroe is characterized by all the things we want in a leader (and a President) today. He was pragmatic, honest and non-partisan. He made strong cabinet choices based on qualifications and not on personal greed or cronyism. His greatest accomplishments include the acquisition of Florida and the Monroe Doctrine. Though the Missouri Compromise would later be found to be unconstitutional, its passage at the time was considered important for the country.
15. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
A second son, JFK was a leader’s leader. He held to his resolve and proved to be wise beyond his years. At 43, he was the second youngest ever elected to the office of President. His service in WWII, and as a both a representative and a senator proved to be too much for the current VP at the time, Richard Nixon. While we will never know how much he could have meant to the US, his stance against the growth of communism worldwide, and his creation of the Peace Corps domestically prove he understood the future better than most Presidents.
16. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Although he was given the nickname “Silent Cal,” Coolidge uttered many phrases that defined his Presidency. “The business of America is business” was one such phrase that belied his belief that the role of the government should be small and that American businesses would drive prosperity and growth. We tend to agree with Silent Cal. A leader of high integrity and distinguished for his character, Coolidge was one of those “accidental Presidents” who served their country first and themselves last. Known best for creating prosperity without the involvement of the Federal government, Coolidge lowered taxes and government spending during his term, proving that the nation could grow without government programs and increased spending.
17. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
LBJ earns high marks for his work to improve civil rights and alleviate poverty – as well as the creation of Medicare and Medicaid – though his escalation of troop levels during the Vietnam War proved to be the beginning of a disastrously terrible chapter in American history. To his credit, Johnson’s decisions seemed to be based on what he thought was best for the country, not necessarily what he thought was best for his party or his own political career. In fact, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the firm belief that it would lead to the loss of Southern votes in future elections. This demonstrated a level of high integrity that we’ve rarely seen from a President since.
18. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
The son of the second President, John Q was actually a better diplomat and negotiator than he was a President. That’s not to say he did a poor job in the White House, he was simply stunning as Secretary of State in drafting the Monroe Doctrine (among many other achievements). As President, he had a great eye for the future: Adams championed such needed US improvement as roads, universities and canals without concern for reelection (which he did not achieve). A selfless leader with great vision, John Quincy Adams is often underrated on lists like these.
19. James Madison (1809-1817)
As the “Author of The Constitution” and the “Father of The Bill of Rights,” Madison deserves some slack that historians rarely give him. While usually ranked in the bottom 10% of all Presidents, TheManager doesn’t put as much weight on issues like declaring war against the British and causing the tremendous casualties inflicted during the War of 1812, because Madison’s intentions were not self-directed or self-serving. Though not a great manager, he understood that power rested with the people – most leaders today still forget this. As a Presidential Leader, Madison was certainly above average.
20. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
“Old Hickory” led 5,000 Americans against 7,500 British troops in the Battle of New Orleans (1815) and won. Not a completely unbelievable feat until you consider that he lost only 13 men compared to the British losses of more than 2,000. While in office, he is credited with greatly reducing the Federal deficit and sometimes blamed with the creation of the spoils system. A strange dichotomy, to say the least, that puts him near the middle of the leadership rankings.
21. George Bush (1989-1993)
George H. W. Bush would probably rank higher on this list if not for his failure to keep one big promise: “read my lips, no new taxes.” Burdened by the deficit created by Reagan, Bush went against his own better judgment and broke his word with the American people. He would later regret the decision to raise taxes, but it would be too late – Bush was a one-term wonder.
22. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Never elected President, Fillmore assumed office after the death of Zachary Taylor. Taylor’s cabinet was corrupt and Fillmore wasted no time in replacing them all – a bold move that more business leaders should consider today. Fillmore also showed great courage in remaining neutral on Hungary’s independence, event though it meant he would probably give up a chance at reelection.
23. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
The youngest ever to become President at age 42, his gigantic personality and his record in battle sometime move him higher on lists like these. TheManager wouldn’t put him on the Mt. Rushmore of Leadership, however, because many of his greatest accomplishments seemed more self-serving that the twenty-two Presidents ahead of him. As true Presidential Leaders go, Roosevelt is just barely above average.
24. William McKinley (1897-1901)
Assassinated just after starting his second term in office, William McKinley was a leader who defied the popular opinion on most issues in favor of what was best for America. Although we fought the Spanish-American War during his term in office, McKinley resisted at first, despite public sentiment that we should have fought much sooner. Under McKinley, the war lasted all of four months. McKinley would probably rank higher on this list if not for the many political appointments he made based on friendships and back-office bargains.
Our Below Average Presidential Leaders
It’s important to note that the bell curve for Presidential Leaders is skewed to the left. As you’ll see in tomorrow’s post, the average leadership score of all 42 Presidents is 75.4 (out of 100). While no company wants a below average leader, most of the below average Presidents could essentially lead and lead well (as here they are ranked against other Presidents, a stringent comparison).
The weighted grading used by the editors of AskTheManager assumes top leadership skills are present with a score of 66.7 or above – 2/3 of a perfect score. All below average Presidents scored at least this much except for Zachary Taylor and Benjamin Harrison. (To see all the score, please read tomorrow’s post.)
25. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
After serving as a US Senator, the Governor of New York (albeit for two months), Secretary of State and Vice President, Van Buren brought his extensive experience to the office of President. He has the distinction of being the first President to be born as an American citizen, and the third to serve only one term. He was largely unsuccessful at improving the faltering economy of his day, and he was known to make decisions that were politically smart rather than those that were humanely right.
26. Chester Arthur (1881-1885)
Arthur, best known for reforming civil service during his Presidency, showed great courage in office by replacing all but one of his predecessor’s cabinet in an effort to go his own way and avoid cronyism. He also tried to lower tariff rates and instituted the first federal immigration laws, despite political pressures. Not all of his decisions led to prosperity for the nation, though he certainly appeared to lead with the best intentions.
27. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
An “accidental President” (he never desired the top office) Ford was often unfairly lampooned for his unintended pratfalls. If not for the pardoning of Richard Nixon (the worst Presidential Leader of all time), Ford would probably rank in the Top 20. His humility and his keen understanding of just how lucky he was to serve in the highest office in the land almost make us forget the terrible inflation and recession that occurred under his watch.
28. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Although he completely mishandled the Great Depression, Hoover was actually not a terrible leader. In fact, HH was quite a humanitarian and very progressive in his views on leadership. His generosity toward war victims and his belief that leadership should be “bottom up” versus “top down” made him unique among US Presidents in his era. He’d rank above average on TheManager’s list, if not for that pesky stock market crash and the unnecessary deepening of the recession during his term.
29. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Forget about Bill Clinton’s popularity, his integrity and his motives are so in question that he should feel lucky to be ranked in the top 30 Presidential Leaders of all time. Many Americans have no idea how close Clinton came to being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice charges (and subsequently being thrown out of office). The editors of AskTheManager believe true leaders face the music and take their medicine (to blend a couple of metaphors), and Bill Clinton did neither. Sorry, President Clinton, but in leadership, integrity matters.
30. William Henry Harrison (1841)
The editors at AskTheManager.com feel bad even giving Harrison a grade (he served just over one month), but he did serve, so we’re left with grading him based on what he accomplished with those precious few days in office and his overall makeup as a leader. His high integrity and perceived lack of ego tell us that he could have been a very good leader. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure, and based on his lack of notable legislation during his days in office, he ranks as a below average Presidential Leader.
31. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
A fan of Nationalism, Taylor is sometimes viewed as a President who stood his ground on the expansion of slavery. In fact, Taylor was a slave owner and merely was unwilling to give to either side on the issue of slavery. Although his term in office was just over one year, the editors of AskTheManager feel he was not going produce great leadership no matter how long he served. His cabinet was corrupt and he was largely ineffective as a leader.
32. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
Although Harrison’s administration was instrumental in passing the Sherman Antitrust Act, his reliance on higher tariffs and excessive government spending cast a fog over his accomplishments. His Presidency was largely non-descript, and he did very little to guarantee continued prosperity or liberty for America.
The Ten Worst Presidential Leaders of All Time
Shame, shame, shame. These ten men might find it hard to run any business of significant size – certainly they would struggle if their businesses faced threats from the economy or competition. Their lack of noticeable accomplishments and/or general lack of character distinguish this group as the worst Leader-Presidents ever:
33. James A. Garfield (1881)
Six months in office should give Garfield an “NA” in TheManager’s book, but every President gets a ranking. Besides that, his short stay in office was mostly spent squabbling with a rival over a political appointment. He probably could have been a great leader, but Garfield’s priorities were a little out of whack. More time would likely have earned him a better grade, but based on his body of work as a leader, he’s the 10th worst President of all time.
34. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
Hayes’ inactivity during office seems more a result of the times than a laissez-faire attitude (though we could be wrong). The actions he did take, like ending Reconstruction with the Compromise of 1877, were politically motivated. While his decisions were often flawed, like sending federal troops to handle the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, we don’t fault Presidents for making bad decisions, unless they were made with bad intentions. Hayes, it seems, may have done just that throughout his Presidency.
35. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
A President who allowed, if not encouraged, corruption, Grant was not a servant leader and is often overrated on lists like these. While he supported civil rights and cracked down on the Ku Klux Klan, the depression that occurred during his term ushered in a Democratic congress that made him relatively ineffective. His scandal-ridden administration and reports of anti-Semitism tarnish his legacy.
36. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
It’s always easy to attack the sitting President, though all politicians should be judged by history and not by current popular sentiment. That said, the editors at AskTheManager were hard pressed to move W any higher on the list. Many Presidents have had poor popularity ratings, though with W the low opinion seem to come from a definite lack of true leadership. His poor handling of the Iraq War (great leaders admit when they’re wrong and they “fish or cut bait”) and the fact that only 10% of his top cabinet members appointed in 2001 are still with him today, are among the many issues that show Bush deserves to be ranked as the 7th worst Presidential Leader of all time.
37. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
Johnson, vice President at the time of Lincoln’s assassination, vetoed many civil rights acts and blocked the 14th Amendment because of his deep feelings of racism. His policies, and his inability to play well with others, led to his impeachment in 1869. Andrew Johnson has the distinction of being the first US President ever impeached and AskTheManager’s 6th worst President ever.
38. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
While Pierce assumed the Presidency at a very tranquil time, it didn’t take him long to find controversy as the slavery issue soon came to the forefront. His handling of this and other problems sometimes ranks him as the worst President of all time, though it’s important to note that no other US President has ever assembled a cabinet that remained together for the entire term. Pierce accomplished this despite choosing men with very different backgrounds for his cabinet positions. That, TheManager believes, shows some leadership skills, just not enough to keep him from being ranked as the 5th worst President of all time.
39. John Tyler (1841-1845)
Tyler assumed office upon the death of Tippecanoe (William Harrison) and proceeded to lead so poorly that his entire cabinet quit (save Daniel Webster) and he was expelled from his party. The ability to compromise and to build a consensus are important traits in a good leader – Tyler could do neither and was, therefore, a terrible leader and the 4th worst Presidential Leader of all time.
40. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
As leaders go, Harding was a joke. Warren G. looked upon the White House and even the country as his personal play land, letting his cronies loot the government coffers while he looked the other way. By all accounts, he never had an interest in helping the American people or leading anyone or anything. While no one ever proved Harding’s involvement in the illegal bribes and kickbacks during his administration, a true leader would never have allowed any of it to happen. As a leader, Harding gets our vote for the 3rd worst President of all time.
41. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
A do-nothing who allowed the South to secede from the Union, Buchanan was the only US President never to marry and the greatest ostrich manager of all time. His head firmly buried in the sand, Buchanan’s inability to lead led to the Civil War, while his refusal to deal with the slavery issue makes him, in TheManager’s eyes, a coward among cowards. Cowardice has no place in leadership, therefore Buchanan is by our accounts, the 2nd worst President in history.
42. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
When we look strictly at Tricky Dick’s leadership abilities, we cannot help but be appalled by the incredible paranoia that led to the Watergate break-in and his criminal behavior that followed. While TheManager believes much of what Nixon accomplished (like creating the EPA and OSHA) was with the best intentions, there are no excuses for his imperialism, the secret bombings during the Vietnam War, and his disastrous wage and price controls. Congratulations Dick, as a leader, you are the worst President of all time.
It’s important to note that these rankings are based on how these Presidents, their traits, their character and their decisions would impact a Fortune 500 company. Are they capable of true leadership or were they just popular pawns of their party?
To see the final scores and rankings in each of the six weighted categories: humility; delegation; integrity; vision; success (during their term); and (their impact on) future (generations), please follow this link.
As we grow ever closer to the November 4, 2008 Presidential Election, the real question for America is where would Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden or Sarah Palin rank on this list? With the current economic climate and uncertain foreign affairs, it’s clear we need a leader. To view our fantasy rankings of these four Presidential and Vice Presidential hopefuls, please see our post from September 9, 2008 by following this link.
Most Popular Leadership (and Other) Posts of 2008 - The Best of AskTheManager.com – 2008
January 1, 2009 @ 6:26 PM
A three-part series that proved to be the most popular posts on our site last year. Published in September, all three articles in this series drew an enormous amount of attention, with the second in the series being our most visited page in 2008. The AskTheManager editors spent months analyzing the leadership records of all forty-two US Presidents to name our best and worst. To see the other 9 posts that made our Top Ten List, click on the link above.