How the President Leads

Princeton professor Fred I. Greenstein has identified six qualities that play a big part in presidential job performance. Here’s how leaders outside the political sphere can follow a chief-executive example.


He is CEO of the free world. Director of democracy. Leader of a 275 million-person team. Today, he is President Bill Clinton, and in January 2001 he will be either a Democrat from Tennessee or a Republican from Texas.


Regardless of the man or woman who fills the job, the office of President of the United States is a powerful institution with a rich, 211-year history of leadership models and mentors. America’s commanders in chief have represented a broad spectrum of backgrounds, doctrines, personalities, and leadership styles. From the aristocratic, charismatic Franklin D. Roosevelt and the unassuming, plain-spoken Harry Truman, to the charming, confident John F. Kennedy and the anxious, calculating Richard Nixon, the White House has been home to a gamut of leaders.

Princeton professor of politics Fred I. Greenstein analyzes and compares these presidential idiosyncrasies in his recent book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton, and then presents six specific qualities that relate to presidential job performance. These factors, which take into consideration everything from political savvy to speaking ability, apply not only to the presidency, but to high offices in countless organizations, businesses, and government offices around the world.

“The qualities I use to evaluate presidents are partly related to the job of the chief executive and partly to the president’s personal character,” Greenstein says. “These are qualities that clearly can be applied to other fields. For example, all six of them can be applied to the CEO of a large corporation.”


Fast Company spoke with Greenstein about the metrics he uses to gauge presidents’ success. Here, he describes each trait, demonstrates how they were manifested in specific presidencies, and emphasizes their relevance to leaders outside the government.

“My advice to business leaders is this: Study the performance of successful leaders in your field. Seek mentors. Be self-aware. Don’t rest on your oars,” he says. “Many American presidents lacked important skills when they were young, but went to great lengths to develop those skills. Leaders of industry should do the same.”

Effectiveness as a Public Communicator

“Because the presidency is a job that calls for teaching and preaching, communication to the public is important.”


Just as a CEO must speak effectively and forcefully to stockholders, employees, and the board of directors, so too must the president communicate her goals, vision, and priorities to American citizens, media, and members of the executive staff.

“The most impressive of the presidential public communicators was FDR, who may have literally saved the nation by rallying the American public during the Depression and WWII,” Greenstein says. Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton also earn Greenstein’s praise in The Presidential Difference, which argues that “most presidents have not addressed the public with anything approximating the professionalism of countless educators, members of the clergy, and radio and television broadcasters.”

Organizational Capacity

“Because the president requires an extensive personal support system to do his job, organizational capacity is crucial.”


This metric specifically looks at a president’s ability to forge an effective team of White House staffers and Cabinet members who present varied, well-informed opinions, who work on behalf of the president fairly and effectively, and who carry out the objectives of the administration without redundancy or wasted resources.

“Organizationally, the former supreme commander — Eisenhower– trumps all others,” Greenstein argues. Eisenhower established a very structured and precise team within the White House, the likes of which have not existed since he left office in 1961. In his book, Greenstein says that alumni of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford, and Bush presidencies generally offer nothing but praise and respect for the presidents they served. In contrast, Johnson, Carter, Nixon, and Clinton do not inspire unanimous praise from their team members.

Political Skill

“Because he must navigate his way through the checks and balances of a gridlock-prone political system, political skill is necessary.”


Can and will this president cross party lines to achieve a political goal? How well does he interact with members of Congress? What is his reputation in political circles? These are the questions Greenstein asked when analyzing a president’s political skill.

“Lyndon Johnson was the most skilled of the modern presidents in political operations, thereby enabling him to bring breakthrough domestic legislation into being,” he says. “But in foreign policy he lacked vision, leading the nation into a military disaster.” Greenstein points out that political skill does not necessarily translate into effective leadership or successful legislation. He indicates, for example, that Kennedy possessed great political skill, but lacked a larger view of public policy and a distinct vision. As a result, Kennedy’s skill did not reach to its full potential in office.


“Skill can be used to make bad and counterproductive decisions, so a realistic policy vision is important.”


Greenstein defines “vision” as a president’s ability to inspire, in addition to his understanding of policies and their feasibility, and his possession of overarching goals for the nation. Superior vision, he says, does not require a mastery of the minutiae, but it does fall apart when a president possesses only a general understanding of the policies and initiatives he stands behind. For example, Reagan communicated the big picture very well but often could not discuss the specifics in order to back up his points. George H. Bush, on the other hand, commanded a great understanding of policy details, but he failed to champion any big national goals during his term.

“Nixon had vision in spades when it came to foreign policy,” Greenstein says. “He set three first-term goals: Getting our combat forces out of Vietnam, reaching an arms agreement with the Soviet Union, and establishing a relationship with China. He was able to accomplish these goals not only because of his vision, but also because of his great and highly strategic intelligence. But he was extremely lacking in emotional intelligence. Thus, he also embarked on a politically unnecessary secret program of political espionage and sabotage. In the end, he doomed his presidency and left the nation with an enduring trauma.”

Cognitive Style

“The president’s cognitive capacities bear on his ability to process the flood of advice and information that comes his way.”


Cognitive style is not synonymous with intelligence. Greenstein says cognitive style reflects a president’s prior work experience and background as well as his IQ. The peanut farmer Jimmy Carter addressed problems much differently than the Ivy League aristocrat FDR. Likewise, former military commander President Eisenhower used different thought processes than did Clinton, who has not served in the armed services.

Though various cognitive styles are neither right nor wrong, Greenstein argues that two presidents suffered from cognitive “limitations” that adversely affected their presidencies: Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman. He says both men had a limited political understanding and a loose grasp on policy initiatives.

Emotional Intelligence

“The presence or absence of emotional intelligence determines whether a president can stand the pressures of his job, and whether he allows his feelings to get out of control, subverting his leadership.”


Greenstein says only 3 of the last 11 presidents have excelled in this category: Eisenhower, Ford, and Bush. All of the others suffered from emotional undercurrents — such as Kennedy’s impulsiveness and philandering — or from serious emotional handicaps. Greenstein says Johnson was subject to mood swings, Nixon to anger and unmerited suspicion, Carter to rigidity, and Clinton to defective impulse control.

“Emotional intelligence trumps the other character traits for two reasons,” Greenstein says. “In its absence, even a highly able president may go astray, as Clinton did in the Lewinsky affair. Moreover, the president is the custodian of potentially the most destructive military capacity in human history. The finger on the button should not be the extension of an unstable personality.”

In Conclusion: The 2000 Election

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. Presidential performance is easier to analyze once a president leaves office and his administration can be compared to those before and after his. Still, Greenstein says that the American public should use these six qualities to judge presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore in the days before the 2000 election.


Both candidates, he says, are “lackluster public communicators” with solid emotional intelligence, but several distinctions do exist. “Judging from his performance as a coalition builder in Texas and from the smoothness of his campaign organization, Bush has the edge in political skill and organizational capacity,” he says. “On the other hand, Gore far exceeds Bush in his ability to process advice and information, and in the depth and completeness of his vision.”

Learn more about Professor Fred I. Greenstein on the Princeton Web site. Learn more about The Presidential Difference online.