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What Skills Does a President Need?

Paul is always trying to find out what it is that makes a great leader.

Barack Obama speaks with young woman in Cleveland, OH

Barack Obama speaks with young woman in Cleveland, OH

What Makes a President Successful?

Preparing to step into a leadership role? Learn from the nation's leader: the president.

The skills on this short list are important for success in any field, but a national leader needs to demonstrate these skills at a higher level of excellence.

1. Vision

A national leader must have a strong vision of where the country is going, and a plan to bring it there. Like Moses in the wilderness, a leader must always keep the goal of the journey in mind, and keep reminding people that it exists.

During the crisis of World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill laid out in plain language exactly what England was going to do.

2. Charisma

A national leader must have powerful charisma, to gain the support of the country and inspire each citizen to contribute to its success.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression, his evident confidence and conviction persuaded the people that the economy might recover.

3. Perseverance

A president must persevere. Setbacks can only be temporary. He (or she!) must address them and press forward.

Future President Richard Nixon--not wealthy, not popular, not attractive--persisted his way through law school, earning the nickname "Iron Butt" for out-studying his classmates. As a politician, he outlasted scandals and defeats before finally being elected president. In office, he was unrelenting in investigating his enemies, which led to Watergate and his impeachment.

4. Communication

A national leader must be an effective global communicator of our vision, the actions we will take, and how other countries can engage with us.

People called President Ronald Reagan "The Great Communicator." He could certainly deliver a speech.

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5. Intellect

A national leader must have a strong mind and incredible stamina to synthesize, process, and understand the vast amount of information coming in daily.

(Fun fact: Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, has a Ph. D. in physical chemistry.)

Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton could always think on their feet, ready to say something about any complex issue put to them. But George W. Bush would often pop out of gear, mentally, in public.

6. Focus

A leader of a huge enterprise must select a few tasks to execute at an exceedingly high level. This requires a focus on the most important problems.

Nixon's highest-priority project was rapprochement with China. His visit to China was a surprising breakthrough. His foreign policy might have brought about even closer relations between the US and the "Communist Bloc," but his term was truncated by Watergate.

7. Pragmatism

A leader must be willing to make tough decisions, decisions that not everyone will like. He or she must put the total good of the people above the good of donors and a vocal minority. He or she must realize there are good things that cannot be done, given priorities and resources.

Perhaps the American Presidents who made the toughest decisions were the ones who got us out of the Asian wars--Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There was always some disagreement with the decisions that began these optional wars, and there are still plenty of recriminations about the decisions that got us out of them.

In this masterful political ad, Nixon's team promises to end the Vietnam War.

8. Ability to listen

Before making the ultimate decision, a leader must first truly listen to the advisors, the people, and the critics.

Bill Clinton claimed to be a good listener and suffered a lot of teasing for that.

9. Love

A leader must love his or her people and country genuinely.

In this 9/11 video, President George W. Bush embraces a firefighter and expresses gratitude on behalf of the country.

Are Skills the Most Important Thing?

In a previous article I wrote, 59% of people polled said current President Barack Obama has these ten skills. Yet many say Obama hasn't accomplished his goals, despite these skills.

It's very American to connect "skills" with "success." Here are two reasons to think they might not be the same thing when it comes to presidents.

1. Skills… for What?

By now it's become an American cliché--the life skills a president needs to get elected are not those he needs to govern.

In this classic 1972 movie, an attractive candidate gains the overwhelming support of the people without having any idea what he means to do with it.

2. Do skills plus goals equal success? Maybe not.

In the speech below, in April 2013, former President Jimmy Carter says the US is achieving the opposite of its clearly stated and shared goals: it is promoting war instead of peace, and violating human rights instead of protecting them.

Carter acknowledges Obama's competence and confirms that Obama's administration shares these goals. Then why can't the Obama administration in practice work for peace and human rights? Something is broken.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Me on October 27, 2015:

Because I think I like to guess the first because I don't know how they sound

Aaron Wilkins on August 24, 2015:

Now almost 8 years later we find Obama is not a Christian, but a Muslim. A liar, can't run a lemmon aid stand let alone a country. He lets immigrants into America without any securing our borders. He should be in Jail

Tom on February 15, 2012:

Your top 10 skills are symbolic, Hitler had most of them.

Tom on February 15, 2012:

What about Experience, Leadership, Wisdom, Character, Morality and Judgment.

On all those he is not bad, he’s Pathetic.

sam sawyer on April 05, 2011:

i agree Paul Edmondson

Hal Licino from Toronto on February 05, 2009:

I have to classify myself as a pessimist as pertains to the outlook for all aspects of the American economy during Mr. Obama's first term. I believe we have already passed the sign: "Beyond Here Be Dragons." I pray that Mr. Obama can lead all of the world's financial system to a soft landing, but I see nothing but jagged rocks below. :(

foxility on February 04, 2009:

Very well put, Paul. We'll see what type of legacy Obama leaves behind.

Paul Edmondson (author) from Burlingame, CA on February 03, 2009:

I was recently told that during good times, few people care about who is President, Senator, or much about the government, but, when things are bad. People care. A lot.

I think Obama will benefit from the interest of the people, even if the next four years are very rough.

Hal Licino from Toronto on February 03, 2009:

I believe that Mr. Obama is an incredibly skilled President who would have gone down in history as one of the best ever, if it wasn't for the year he was elected. I strongly doubt that any intellectual or character traits, no matter how advanced, will be able to insulate the American public from the profound shocks of the next four years.

Karen on February 03, 2009:

I agree that President Obama has the skills you've mentioned. I also think he has a natural diplomacy, confidance, and compassion about him.


Bruce Elkin from Victoria, BC Canada on February 02, 2009:

Great hub. Well written but a bit short. If I'd written it, I'd have got a message from Maddie saying it was too short. :-) Just kidding! But bitter!

Jennifer Bhala Hansen on February 02, 2009:

Can't you have a third choice in the voting are that says "I hope so"

He seems to be smart and intelligent and respectful but whether he has the power to make his own decisions, and not be influened by the one's running the government, who knows. I am disappointed in the way the bailout is being handled by him. And I don't think the IRS guy who didn't pay his taxes should keep his position because if that was one of us, we would not be able to.

I guess that list shows that bush wasn't successful.

Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on February 02, 2009:

I, too, think Obama has those skills. But we're in a deep hole which will take some time to get out of.

Mary K Weinhagen from Minnesota, usa, Planet Earth on February 02, 2009:

I absolutely agree that those are vital elements of an effective leader... AND that Obama has them in spades! It's almost as though he was tailor made for the job... though why, exactly he'd want it is still something of a mystery to me. ;-)

gredmondson on February 02, 2009:

I agree with you about Barack Obama possessing those skills necessary to be a great president. Recently, I read a review of a book about the attitude and intelligence of presidents. The author believed that Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt scored high in both intelligence and attitude. Richard Nixon was given as an example of high intgelligence and low attitude.

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