Leadership Lessons from Jimmy Carter

ARTICLE | Mar 20, 2017

Jimmy Carter's leadership offers a unique opportunity for analysis because his post-presidency work is admired perhaps more than his work as president of the United States (1977 to 1981). In my opinion, this contrast illustrates a local government manager's need to apply different leadership skills to different situations, and to rely on a solid foundation of honesty and integrity.

Carter's appeal to the nation in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal was that he was an honest, common man of high integrity and personal principles. Despite these personal characteristics, Jimmy Carter's presidency is known as lacking specificity in vision and purpose.

On the other hand, in his post-presidency, Carter provided consistent vision, goals, and skills to succeed in another setting.

More Than Foundational Qualities

In his inaugural address, Carter spoke of the United States being the first country to openly "define itself in terms of both spirituality and human liberty" and its "obligation to take on those moral duties."

Later, as a peacemaker and humanitarian and in his books, he demonstrated consistent convictions based on honesty and spirituality.

Effective presidents, however, like other leaders, need to possess qualities beyond those I refer to as foundational. During his presidency, Carter expressed broad ideals in his speeches, although seemed to lack a specific vision, agenda, and strategy for accomplishments.

Leadership literature advises local government managers about the need for principles, honesty, and responsibility; however, we are also advised of the need for vision, goals, and strategy.

Listening and Communicating

Admirably, Carter pledged to communicate with the public through chats, town meetings, and press conferences to bring a sense of intimacy, interaction, and trust back to government. Interestingly, he even stated that he would continue to listen and then act with the people rather than provide leadership to the people.

Carter's skills in listening and communicating on a more personal level were more suited to the Carter Center's work for world peace, justice, and human rights than forming a national vision and direction for the country.

Carter describes his work late in life as "by far, my best years." He also describes his work as unlike that of his presidency because he worked with nations that are inconsequential to the world's major issues, and he was able to "work closely with local governments and many organizations" in an "intimate relationship," which is an "emotional and often spiritual relationship."

Listening is an important component of communication and leadership. As local government managers we need to listen, communicate in an interpersonal fashion, and facilitate a vision. Managers need to have the self-awareness that Carter demonstrated and expressed after the presidency while giving service to their communities. The work of a president involves myriad issues and the Carter Center is focused and strategic. Carter's penchant for detail made his political career difficult but was beneficial to his organization.

It has been reported that, early in his political career, Carter pledged to read every bill requiring his vote, which was difficult and time-consuming. Later, as president, Carter himself was deeply involved in many legislative issues at a time that diminished his ability to provide vision for broad issues.

Leaders, to have adequate influence, must prioritize their work and choose the most impactful projects and issues, leaving other issues to be delegated.

Need for Vision and Strategy

A president's work needs the support, guidance, and collaboration of many people and entities, including the people and Congress. In his article "Lessons in Leadership from Three American Presidents," Michael Siegel provides examples that portray Carter as lacking in both vision and strategy.

Siegel writes that early staff meetings lacked a person to lead the meetings. Carter also refused to meet with congressional leaders on critically important issues; filled White House aide positions with predominately Georgians with little Washington experience; and decided to have no chief of staff.

These "mistakes" created issues related to time management for the president himself, a lack of influence with Congress, and haphazard direction for key staff members.

In contrast, Carter himself had the vision and personally led the creation of mission, fundraising, construction, and startup of the organization that would become the Carter Center. As with any start-up organization, success relied on the strategy and management efforts of the person with the original vision and mission for success, Carter himself.

He managed the early years with his penchant for detail and guided by his personal foundation for peace, justice, fairness, and honesty.

Combination of Characteristics

Carter brought to the presidency the foundation for leadership that the American public, and cities and counties, desire today. The successes of Carter's presidency and post-presidency are largely due to his personal foundation combined with critical thinking, awareness of detail, and high proficiency in interpersonal relations.

The deficiencies in his presidency were due to his unwillingness to focus those broad ideals into a focused vision and prioritized strategy. As managers and facilitators for our elected bodies, we need to create the atmosphere for vision, goals, and strategy. Our elected bodies need us to assist them in providing vision and direction to the organization and community.

His work from the Carter Center has been highly successful; Jimmy Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 more than 20 years after his presidency ended.

We should all have the foundational characteristics of Jimmy Carter. I think the world would be a better place. But, we must combine those characteristics with vision, goals, and strategy.