Running Head: TRUMAN
Truman: an Exemplar of Leadership
Seattle Pacific University
Truman: an Exemplar of Leadership
Many Americans think of Harry S. Truman as the Missouri farmer who became president, defied convention by speaking his mind, and retired to a life of quiet gentility in his hometown of Independence, Missouri. Truman and his presidency, however, were much more complex. As depicted by McCullough, Truman, though the first president of the nuclear era, was fundamentally a throwback to the 19th century. Truman’s central values included honesty, integrity and humility. His nature was to be self-effacing. These characteristics are evident throughout his life.
Harry Truman was born on May 8, 1884. Essentially he was the first child; his mother had delivered a stillborn child the year prior to Truman’s birth. Raised on a farm in Missouri, Truman would say that he had the happiest childhood imaginable. He was a timid child and suffered from poor vision. His inferior vision and thick glasses prevented a typical boyhood. Encouraged by his Mother, he turned to piano and books. At the piano, he developed a talent that provided relaxation in later years. By grade four, Harry was a voracious reader, and gained much historical information, which would later influence his career. He was never very popular like other boys; however, his boyhood friends had a lot of respect for him because of his aptitude for details. In the spring of 1894, his mother presented him with a set of large illustrated volumes titled, “ Great Men and Famous Women”, by Charles Francis Horne. He would later count the moment as one of life’s turning points. Of the American heroes, his favorites were Andrew Jackson and Robert E. Lee, who was his mother’s idol. It would be worthy of her, he would later tell a friend, that he studied the career of “great men” (p. 44).
Attempting to follow his historical icons, Truman desperately wanted to attend college. His poor eyesight prevented admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He could not afford a formal college education. Instead, he joined the Missouri National Guard while supporting himself with a job at the drugstore. World War I offered him an exit. Truman was commissioned an officer for the United States Army. The war provided defining opportunities for Truman. He showed unexpected leadership while commanding Battery D in France. He was an able leader and would delegate effectively. Additionally, he demonstrated affability and enthusiasm for male comradeship. These qualities served him well after returning to the United States as a war hero.
Truman’s subsequent career was political. By 1935, he took office as a United States Senator. He struggled successfully to prove himself as a senator. One defining challenge came from fellow senator’s who resented Truman’s association with the Pendergast clan. Truman increasingly familiar qualities of battlefield honesty, integrity, hard work and determination served him well. He ultimately prevailed.
Truman succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt as president before the end of World War II. He responded quickly to new challenges. Impulsive, he proved willing to make quick decisions when necessary. Additionally, he took responsibility for his decisions. His slogan, “The Buck Stops Here”, is famous in American politics.
Intellectual integrity is another area in which Truman’s values are evident. A chief strength of his was the ability to admit the need for help. His experience in Potsdam, with the tremendously knowledgeable Churchill and Stalin, nearly overwhelmed him. Consequently, he organized his education in foreign affairs. He met often with General George Marshall, and spoke with the then-Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson daily. By incorporating the strengths of his staff, Truman was able to make educated and well thought out decisions. He attempted to galvanize himself as a knowledgeable and effective leader. Acheson never ceased to be impressed that Truman had no trace of imperiousness about him and never let his ego to come between him and his job (p. 550).
Truman’s handling of Palestine is another example of his effective leadership. The issue of whether or not to create a unified Jewish state was divisive and risky. His Gallup pole approval was already at an all time low, as he confronted this issue. Yet he chose and stuck to his desire for a unified Jewish state. Despite his floundering state as President, he achieved what he intended. On May 14, 1947, the United States of America formally recognized the new Jewish State. “Truman met his goal, and also established that he was in charge of America”(p. 619).
The leadership paradigm of the Truman years represented a blend of 19th century principles and postwar austerity. He was admired for his ability to maintain his Midwestern demure while being one of the world’s most prominent leaders as President of the United States.
Truman was a compromise candidate for vice president, almost an accidental president after Roosevelt’s death 12 weeks into his second term. Truman’s stunning come-from-behind victory in the 1948 election showed how ordinary Americans, perhaps, appreciated his personal qualities of integrity and straightforwardness as McCullough notes, because he was one himself. Most Americans in the 1950s did not expect that Harry Truman would become one of their most highly regarded presidents. By 1952, just before he announced his decision not to run again, only 25% of the people thought he was doing a good job. Within a decade, however, most American historians regarded him as one of the nation’s greatest presidents. The common touch he had brought to the office and his decisive style of leadership made him the finest of all the “accidental presidents”.