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Stop Being So Vain

February 23, 2012

To the casual observer, William McKinley, 25th President of the United States, didn’t seem to enjoy the greatest reputation. Many of his contemporaries considered him to be vapid and aimless – pleasant, but without the vigor and aggressiveness of Theodore Roosevelt, who would succeed him upon his untimely death. “Few American Presidents,” historian Walter Karp observed “were so widely regarded in their own time as the instrument of other men’s visions, the tool of other men’s ambitions, or the victim of sheer, inescapable circumstance.”

And yet, despite McKinley’s abysmal reputation, there are some compelling leadership lessons to be learned from this man, who eventually was vindicated as the “supreme example of the…leader who gets things done without ever seeming to lead.”

While many thought McKinley to be “amiably weak,” those who knew him better knew that his passive persona was, in the words of his secretary of state, John Hay, merely a “mask.” Historians have since come to see the shrewdness in this observation: when we peel away the layers of yellow journalism, popular opinion, and journalistic speculation, McKinley stands revealed as a superb manipulator, craftily angling situations and people to facilitate the accomplishment of his agenda, while simultaneously avoiding, wherever possible, seeming to take an unpopular stance.

This leadership style was exemplified before he even took office. In the heat of his presidential campaign, many accused Mark Hanna, McKinley’s campaign manager, of being the real power behind McKinley, earning Hanna the epithet “kingmaker” and subsequent portrayal, according to William T. Horner, as “the puppet master controlling the weak-willed” McKinley. This was, as we now know, an entirely false depiction. While McKinley may not have appeared to stand at the helm of his own ship, he was in fact its only guiding force. Hanna was, as it turns out, his “front man, the one who did all his political dirty work and who suffered all the consequent abuse.” Thus, when the seemingly all-powerful William Randolph Hearst, who supported McKinley’s opponent, set his sights on ruining McKinley’s image, he was compelled to settle for Hanna instead, because McKinley enjoyed an “unblemished record in politics,” according to John Simkin of Spartacus Educational.

In situations like these, when any other leader may have become the target of public criticism and been thus deterred, McKinley’s true genius is revealed. McKinley’s defining characteristic as a leader, his “greatest political asset,” was, after all, his utter “lack of personal vanity – a lack bordering on shamelessness.” Because he did not hunger for the credit of his successes, he neither risked ridicule in failure, allowing him to move unhindered from one initiative to the next.

There are, of course, two sides to this coin: one in which a leader regards his/her followers simply as instruments to an objective; the other in which a leader gets out of the way of accomplishing his/her vision and, having recruited followers to a cause, allows them to take full credit for their successes (and, necessarily sometimes, for their failures). Leaders who adopt this latter approach may find themselves on course to exemplify Lao Tzu’s 2,500 year-old axiom: “The best of leaders, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, the people will say, ‘We have done this ourselves.’”

So, if you take from McKinley’s story that abstaining from vanity is a key ingredient to a leader’s success, it is only left to you to determine: will you be remembered as a leader who used followers to shield yourself from criticism, or one who empowered followers to passionately pursue the vision you shared, celebrating their victories along the way?

About the Author:

Ashley Wollam is Program Manager at Linkage, responsible for its Global Institute for Leadership Development. A life-long, passionate student of leadership, Ashley received his early leadership training at the McDonough Center for Leadership and Business at Marietta College, one of the first undergraduate leadership programs in the country.

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