Saturday, December 19, 2009

Harry Truman would never do an end zone dance

On the morning of November 2, 1948, Harry Truman was awakened by secret service agent Jim Rowley to be informed that he had won the most dramatic upset election in our nation's history. Literally every poll, media outlet, political pundit, and even his own team were convinced that he couldn't win and yet, on this morning, it was clear that he had won the necessary electoral votes and garnered the popular vote by over 2 million votes. So, did Harry do a fist-pumping, chest-thumping jig around his Excelsior Springs retreat home?

Not exactly.

Here is how Jerome Walsh describes Truman's reaction to the news on that fateful day in a letter to a friend.

I am trying to give you ... a sense of the astonishment we all felt at the unbelievable coolness with which the President faced up to the whole situation, the manner in which he took the thing for granted, as if he had read the answer in a crystal ball two weeks before. At 6 a.m., there still was plenty of reason for Governor Dewey to refuse to concede. Conceivably Ohio might have switched in late returns. California or Illinois might have toppled and the President's lead been sharply reversed. ... Actually, Mr. Truman, at 6 A.M., hardly seemed interested in the matter. To him the election was won, had always been won since the day he began carrying his fight to the people, and his mind already turning to other aspects of his program. ... The serenity of the President ... suggested to all of us, I think, that his years of crisis in office have equipped him with a very large reserve of inner strength and discipline to draw upon.

We've all seen the picture above as Truman holds up the ill timed headline proclaiming Dewey the winner. What we can't do is equate that to a football end-zone dance in 2009. Truman had a confidence sense of himself coupled with authentic humility. His response was more like the seasoned veteran who simply hands the football back to the ref and heads to his teammates for some congratulations to the whole team. I like the phrase that is often used by veteran football players, "Act like you've been there before".

Leaders would do well to keep an even temperament in the midst of the highs and lows that inevitably come with any organization. It's imperative to keep one's eyes on the ultimate goal and work persistently toward that end expecting that the focused labor will produce the desired results. You might even consider a little back flip to celebrate when you finally get there, but only if you have a safe landing place ... and nobody is watching your foolishness.

This any many more insights to this remarkable leader can be found in David McCullough's excellent book Truman.