Cover image for When the buck stops with you : Harry S. Truman on leadership
When the buck stops with you : Harry S. Truman on leadership
Axelrod, Alan, 1952-
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New York : Portfolio, [2004]

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xv, 317 pages ; 22 cm
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E814 .A93 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Harry Truman had been vice president for less than a year when he inherited the White House in 1945. With little preparation, he masterfully guided the nation through the last days of World War II, the Marshall Plan, and the war in Korea. The humble, plainspoken man known for the adage “The buck stops here” took on the challenges the way he knew best—head on.

Bestselling author Alan Axelrod offers a fascinating look at the man who made some of the most difficult decisions of the last century, through more than 150 lessons from Truman’s life and career. Divided among twelve chapters such as “Bringing People Together,” “The Right Thing,” “Hell: Giving and Getting,” and “Facts of the Matter,” these concise principles can be used by modern-day managers in their day-to-day quest for business success. Inspirational and practical, When the Buck Stops with You is sure to join Axelrod’s other works as a must-have volume on leadership.

Author Notes

Alan Axelrod was born on August 25, 1952, in New York. He was educated at Northeastern Illinois University and University of Iowa. He is a leading writer about American history, and is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to American History. In his books, Axelrod presents the facts, details, and faces that have helped shape the history of the United States.

Axelrod has served as a consultant to several museums and institutions. He has received numerous honors, including a National Cowboy Hall of Fame Award in 1991.

(Bowker Author Biography)



Introduction Do Your Damnedest "Three things can ruin a man," Harry Truman once said, "power, money, and women. I never wanted power, I never had any money, and the only woman in my life is up at the house right now." For once, the Man from Missouri wasn't being 100 percent honest. There was another woman in Truman's life. It was his daughter, Margaret, to whom he was devoted with a love at once intense and easygoing. He wrote her many letters over the years, including one in which he confessed, "Your dad will never be reckoned among the great." He continued: But you can be sure he did his level best and gave all he had to his country. There is an epitaph in Boot Hill Cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona, which reads, "Here lies Jack Williams; he done his damnedest." What more can a person do? This is a book of lessons on leadership from Harry Truman. But Truman, a lover of sharp, straight, homely words, would have called them something else: lessons on doing your damnedest. Such lessons are not easy to come by. We are continually tempted to do less than our damnedest and, at virtually every turn, are told to pursue the quick and dirty, advised to "work smart, not hard," and urged to take the money and run. Plug away at a job or a career long enough, and it is easy to forget who you are and of what, at your truest best, you are capable. Each day, you may drift further and further from your damnedest or, even worse, you may never even discover just what your damnedest is. Harry Truman sacrificed much. He dedicated himself to public service. He took on all the responsibility of office, every last bit of it, and accepted all the criticism, every bitter jab. At the same time, he turned away most of the praise and the credit, deflecting it to those who loyally reported to him. But one sacrifice he would never make: to do less than his damnedest. Give up your best self, choose not to stretch, take the fast, low road-these easy alternatives were much too hard for Truman. The facts of Harry Truman's life, including those from childhood through his pre-White House political career, are surveyed in Chapter 1, "Missouri to the White House, the White House to Missouri," and what is most striking about them is that they are hardly striking at all. Truman was an admirable but, as he himself said, a perfectly ordinary man-who nevertheless resolved to do his damnedest. This is not a learned political study or a meditation on the nature of power. It is a hard and practical look at the leadership moments in the life and career of Harry S. Truman through the lens of his own words and the words of those with whom he dealt directly. The purpose is to distill lessons that can be applied to any situation-especially in business-that requires making definitive decisions, making difficult choices, and mastering a legion of competing priorities. Learning from example is an enterprise Truman himself heartily approved. "If I couldn't have been a pianist," he once remarked, "I think I would have done better as a professor of history." My debt to history is one which cannot be calculated. . . . The leader of any country . . . must know the history of not only his own country but of all other great countries, and . . . he must make the effort to apply this knowledge to the decisions that have to be made. . . . He said: "There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know." And this he understood from a very early age. "While still a boy I could see that history had some extremely valuable lessons to teach." The point is not that Harry Truman was a frustrated history teacher or a history buff, but that he was a history user, who searched for the practical lessons of the past, plucked them out, revolved them in his mind, and applied them to the present. Why do this? Why look for precedent and blueprint in the past? By "history," Truman meant no mere collection of dates and events, but the story of human decisions, the causes and effects of leadership. "Men," he said, "make history. History does not make men." To learn from history is to learn from leaders and the choices they made. Truman believed that the lessons of history would not just help him to lead, but were essential to make him a leader. For he always said he was not a born leader, but an "ordinary man." Not that there was anything wrong with being an ordinary man. Far from it. "I am sure that right down in your heart you know that the ordinary man is the backbone of the country," he once told an audience of farmers. But like so many of his generation-a generation, FDR famously observed, to which little enough had been given, but from which much was expected-Truman was an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Ultimately, it is the ordinariness of Harry Truman that makes him so effective a teacher of leadership. The problems he faced-the climax of World War II, the atomic bomb, the political and moral necessity of rebuilding Europe and Asia, the economic stresses of postwar America, the Cold War, the Korean War, the urgency of civil rights-were great and to all appearances overwhelming, while he, in contrast, was, well, ordinary. If Harry Truman could find his way and take the people with him, so, it would seem, can each of us, in whatever challenging enterprise we find ourselves. As Truman built his leadership skills largely upon a foundation of historical example, so today's managers, supervisors, and CEOs can hone theirs on the hard surface of Truman's example. It's a pity he never distilled his experience into a manual of leadership. For what working manager has the luxury of time to dive into Truman's speeches, interviews, letters, and recollections to locate the leadership pearls? This book does that job and more, presenting Truman's key observations on the style, tactics, and strategy of leadership. Each observation is examined and discussed in its historical context and distilled into a practical, immediately usable lesson. Here is the best of Harry Truman, intended to bring out the best in us. The text is divided into a dozen chapters. The first presents a brief biography, and the next ten approach the model of Truman's leadership thematically, with lessons on * Defining and attaining worthwhile goals * "Riding the tiger"-enduring, surviving, and mastering your job * Penetrating pretense (i.e., cutting through the crap) * Leading by example * Giving hell-and taking it in return * Creating consensus and common cause * Making decisions * Finding the facts-then using them effectively * Creating ethical leadership * Managing time The last chapter, "Reckoning," presents Truman's own summary of what it takes to be a leader. A concluding Appendix offers "A Truman Timeline" and is followed by recommendations for further reading. Read right, the life of Harry Truman is nothing less than a handbook of accountability. Truman kept on his desk the most famous motto any modern leader has ever adopted: the buck stops here. And so this book is about becoming and being a buck stopper, achieving accountability, accepting accountability, and using it creatively: making it your motto, too, by learning how to do your damnedest every time. Chapter 1 Missouri to the White House, the White House to Missouri At 7:09 in the evening of April 12, 1945, two hours and twenty-four minutes after Franklin Delano Roosevelt succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage while sitting for a portrait at the "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Georgia, his vice president stood in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, right hand raised, left hand on the cover of the only Bible that could be found quickly, a Gideon belonging to Howell Crim, head usher of the White House. Chief Justice Harlan Stone began the oath of office, "I, Harry Shipp Truman," to which the vice president responded, "I Harry S. Truman. . . ." Sixty-one years earlier, on May 8, 1884, in a tiny bedroom off the parlor of their home in the market hamlet of Lamar, Missouri, a boy was born to John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Young. It would be a month before Dr. W. L. Griffin, the physician who delivered the boy, registered the birth with the county clerk. Even then, he had no name to supply, because the parents were still debating the baby's middle name. It had certainly been decided that he would be called Harry, after his Uncle Harrison, but should his middle name honor John's father, Anderson Shipp Truman, or Martha's, Solomon Young? Ultimately, the parents compromised on the initial S, which honored both grandfathers, and that initial is quite possibly the only thing about Harry S. Truman that even approaches the level of mystery.* In all other respects, from beginning to end, his life was what he wanted it to be: an open book, clearly, simply, and honestly written. Harry's father was a mule trader and farmer, and when the mule business became sluggish, he moved the family from Lamar to a farm near Harrisonville in 1885 and then to another farm, near Grandview, in 1887. Nearsighted-he would get his first pair of glasses at age nine-and slight of build, Harry Truman was not cut out to be a farmer, so it was just as well that the family, which now included another boy, John Vivian Truman (always called Vivian), moved to Independence in 1890. It was there that a sister, Mary Jane, was born, and it was there that most of Harry's schooling took place. He was, in fact, a rather bookish child. Unable to see well without his glasses, he always wore them; very much aware that they were expensive, he was fearful of breaking them in rough play. "To tell the truth," the painfully truthful Truman confessed in later life, "I was kind of a sissy." His brother's assessment was far kinder. True, Harry was not a scrapper, but, Vivian insisted, he commanded a "lot of respect" from the other boys, who actually admired the store of knowledge he amassed about such exciting subjects as former Missourians Jesse James and the Dalton gang. Harry most enjoyed reading and playing the piano, in that order, and, as he grew into adolescence, he thought about a career as a historian or a pianist. However, John Truman was never sufficiently successful as a farmer or a businessman to finance a college education or advanced musical training for Harry, who, after graduating from high school in 1901, briefly attended business college and worked for two weeks in the mail room of the Kansas City Star. Next, he became a timekeeper for a Santa Fe Railroad construction project and, in 1903, found work as a bank clerk and then as a bank bookkeeper in Kansas City. Even in this prosaic employment, he did his very best-his "damnedest"- and received high praise from his supervisors. Doubtless he would have risen in the bank, but, in 1905, he was summoned to the family's new farm at Blue Ridge, near Grandview. Its 600 acres were too much for John Truman and Vivian to handle on their own, and so, like it or not, Harry Truman finally became a farmer. And when his father died in 1914, that vocational destiny seemed sealed as the farm fell to him. There is not the slightest indication that the more or less enforced return to the farm created any resentment in Harry Truman. Indeed, running a farm gave him the air of sufficient substance to justify, in his own mind, courting Elizabeth-Bess-Wallace in earnest. That courtship began about 1911, but Harry had been sweet on Bess ever since he had first met her in 1890 at the Sunday school of Independence's First Presbyterian Church. Still, it would be November 1913 before the couple became engaged, secretly. By the beginning of 1917, they were about ready to get married at last, but in April the United States entered World War I, and Truman, who did not want to risk making a widow of Bess, postponed the marriage. At thirty-three, he was beyond draft age, and no one expected him to serve, but, bad eyesight and all, he saw his duty, volunteered, and was sent to France in 1918 as the captain of a field artillery unit that engaged in hot and hazardous action at Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. Truman never acquired a taste for military life, but, as the officer in charge of a company of men, he did learn what it meant to be a leader, and he found he had an aptitude for leadership as well as an affinity for the responsibility it brought. Nevertheless, when he was mustered out and returned to Missouri in 1919, it was not a leadership position he sought. After marrying Bess Wallace, he opened a haberdashery on Kansas City's 12th Street in partnership with an army buddy, Eddie Jacobson. To a newly married man, it seemed the financially responsible thing to do, and, at first, he and Jacobson did quite well. Very likely, Harry Truman would have spent his life as a Kansas City businessman had the shop not foundered in the postwar recession of the early 1920s. Out of business, deeply in debt, newly married, and now without a clear direction in life, Truman accepted a friend's introduction to Thomas J. "Boss" Pendergast, Democratic nabob of the Kansas City political machine. No one got very far in Missouri politics without a nod and a boost from Pendergast and his minions, whose machine was at once an economic boon to Kansas City and a municipal source of national disgrace-for it was during the Pendergast years that the town earned its reputation for officially sanctioned vice and racketeering. Backed by Pendergast, Truman won election as county judge in 1922, lost a reelection bid in 1924, but was elected presiding judge of the county court in 1926. Despite its title, this office was not judicial, but administrative. Truman functioned as county commissioner, effectively chief executive of Jackson County, Missouri. Astounding to all involved, this latest Pendergast protégé, during two four-year terms, built a reputation for scrupulous honesty, selfless public stewardship, and skillful, no-nonsense management that was instantly and impartially responsive to the needs of the people. Under Judge Truman, Jackson County got modern and efficient highways and badly needed public buildings, all contracted for and constructed without the favoritism and corruption customary in Pendergast's Missouri. Truman was well aware of T. J. Pendergast's reputation, and he was even more aware that most of the bad things said about "TJP" were amply merited; however, throughout his long political career, Truman never repudiated or even criticized his first mentor, and he pointed out that Pendergast never interfered with him or compelled him to do anything to compromise his own integrity. Nevertheless, as it became clear to Boss Pendergast that Harry Truman was hardly a team player, the odds of the machine's backing him for further and higher political office became increasingly remote. Because two terms marked the traditional limit for a presiding county judge, it seemed to Truman, in 1934, that his political career had reached its end. He accurately predicted that Pendergast would tap others to run in the Democratic primary for a seat in the U.S. Senate, but what he had not counted on was that no one else wanted the job. After several turndowns from others, Pendergast finally turned to Truman. If Truman felt the slightest resentment at having been far from Pendergast's first choice, he showed none of it in his vigorous campaign. He won the Democratic primary, which, in the "Solid South" Missouri of those days, was tantamount to winning the election. It is true that when he entered the Senate in 1935 he did so under the cloud of Pendergast corruption, but his openhanded, plainspoken friendliness, frank integrity, and commitment to his office quickly won respect, trust, and, not least of all, affection from colleagues and public alike. While he compiled a modest but efficient record of achievement during his first Senate term, it was during his second term that he entered the national spotlight by creating and chairing a committee charged with uncovering waste and fraud in the U.S. military and its suppliers. Prodded by its chairman, the Truman Committee, as it was informally and universally called, was ruthless in holding military officers, civil administrators, and-especially- defense contractors to the highest standards of efficiency, performance, and value for money. Yet Truman was far less interested in punishing poor performers or even outright frauds than in motivating them to deliver what they were supposed to and what they had promised. To that end, the Truman Committee made it a practice to issue draft reports of its findings to the corporations, unions, and government agencies under investigation, thereby inviting voluntary correction of abuses before prosecution was commenced. Almost always, this proved abundantly persuasive. In one famous instance, on the eve of World War II, Truman challenged aviation manufacturer Glenn Martin to redesign the B- 26 bomber after it had gone into production with wings that were simply too short to achieve adequate performance. Worse, the design flaw posed a safety hazard that had already sent several airmen to their deaths. In testimony before the committee, Martin told Truman that the design was already on the boards and in production, so that it was too late to make changes. Truman responded with typical directness that "if the lives of American boys depended upon the planes that were produced for the United States Army Air Force the committee would see to it that no defective ships were purchased." This elicited a single sentence in reply from Martin: "Well, if that's the way you feel about it, we'll change it." Truman's Senate record made him an attractive candidate for FDR's running mate in his fourth-term campaign of 1944. Truman, however, loved the Senate and had no burning desire to become the nation's vice president. He staunchly resisted the nomination until Roosevelt, desperately seeking an alternative to the current vice president, Henry A. Wallace (perceived as too left wing), and to Office of War Mobilization head James F. Byrnes (too ambitious), angrily insisted. Over the phone, FDR gave Democratic Party worker Robert Hannegan a message for Truman: "You tell the senator that if he wants to break up the Democratic Party in the middle of the war, that's his responsibility." As the bang of a slammed receiver echoed in Hannegan's ear, he relayed the message to Truman verbatim and, as some recalled, the senator uttered only two monosyllables in response: "Oh, shit!" Truman himself remembered a different reply: "Well, if that's the situation, I'll have to say yes." During the eighty-two days of his service in the Roosevelt administration, Truman met with FDR only twice. The president never formally briefed his vice president, let alone counseled, groomed, or in any way prepared him. Of the existence of the atomic bomb project, for instance, Truman was told absolutely nothing. And so, on April 12, 1945, Truman's elevation to the presidency came under the worst possible circumstances: under cover of the ignorance in which FDR had kept him and upon the sudden death of a larger-than-life four-term chief executive, the man who had led the nation through the Depression and through the darkest, hardest days of World War II, a leader who came as close to being worshiped by his people as any American president ever has. At Roosevelt's death, victory had been all but completely won in Europe, but the Pacific war raged on. The Missourian found himself thrust among top generals and allied leaders who included the monumental Winston Churchill and the enigmatic Joseph Stalin. To say that Truman "rose to the occasion" is a pallid understatement. Following a great leader in a time of unparalleled danger, the new president became a great leader in his own right. The decisions he had to make were momentous, world changing, world building, and, potentially, world destroying. Often, his decisions were unpopular. The press-the "sabotage press," Truman sometimes called it-which was overwhelmingly Republican in orientation throughout most of the country, continually sniped at him, one journalist famously quipping, "To err is Truman." Truman didn't let it matter. He led the nation and made some of the most difficult and important decisions any president has ever made. The first and most famous, of course, was the decision to use the newly developed atomic bomb against Japan, but as consequential as that decision was, Truman later claimed that many others were far harder. Several times in the months and years following the war, he had to go against his own intensely prolabor sympathies to bring the full force of the government to bear in averting or ending coal, rail, and steel strikes that threatened to cripple the nation. In 1948, he had to overcome his own family's Confederate political roots and a white Southerner's heritage of racism to propose and implement the first significant civil rights measures since Reconstruction. That same year, he acted contrary to a number of advisers, including the Cabinet member he most admired, George C. Marshall, in making the United States the first nation to grant official recognition to the new state of Israel. Truman had to lay out a course for the "containment" of expanding Soviet and Chinese Communist aggression-and he had to do so without triggering a cataclysmic third world war. This included ordering the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949, by which the first major "battle" of the Cold War was won, and conducting a heartbreaking and frustrating "police action" in Korea, resisting the Communist invasion of the democratic south without allowing the conflict to engulf the world. From the generation that had come of age under Franklin Roosevelt, much had been required indeed. Yet that generation made its sacrifices in light of a vividly clear and ever-present knowledge of the evils it fought. The next generation, under Truman, was faced with a world in some ways even more terrifying, yet fraught with evils far more obscure and ambiguous, the confronting of which required an effort made all the more exhausting precisely because it had, in so many ways, to be continually and carefully restrained. Truman understood that he led a great and victorious nation on the threshold of perhaps even greater achievement. Yet he also understood that he was the first world leader who possessed the power to destroy civilization itself. Truman was president for all but the first eighty-two days of the fourth term to which Roosevelt had been elected. His chances of getting elected in his own right were reckoned vanishingly slim by just about everyone in 1948 except Truman himself. Feeling that the Republican-dominated press would never give him a fair shake, Truman decided to carry his case directly to the people, and he embarked on a series of cross- country whistle-stop campaign tours of unprecedented duration and extent, traveling 31,700 miles in six weeks and giving 356 speeches. While the pollsters continued to discount the chances of a Truman victory, and some oddsmakers put his chances at 30 to 1, Truman knew he had connected with the people and was supremely confident. In the end, he prevailed over the favored candidate, New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, 303 electoral votes to 189, having polled 24,105,812 popular votes to Dewey's 21,970,065. The next four years were dominated by the Cold War, the Korean War, and an anticommunist hysteria at home that threatened the continued existence of democracy itself. Truman remained steadfast at the helm, and although supporters pleaded with him to run for a second term "in his own right" (a run to which he was entitled, since the Twenty-second Amendment, ratified in 1951 and barring presidents from serving more than two terms, did not apply to the sitting president), Truman declined. While he did not approve of a constitutionally mandated two-term limit, he nevertheless believed that, except in circumstances of extreme emergency, such as those FDR had faced, a president should voluntarily restrict himself to two terms. Any more than that risked dictatorship. His precedent for this self-imposed limit was no less than George Washington and the noble Roman to whom Washington was often compared, Cincinnatus. Washington's popularity was such that he could have been president for life, but after two terms he chose to retire, a private citizen, to his beloved Mount Vernon, much as Cincinnatus had retired to his farm, relinquishing absolute rule over Rome in 458 b.c. after he had completed the job of rescuing his country from the rebellious Aequi. In July 1945, Harry Truman enjoyed a public approval rating of 87 percent. When he left office in January 1953, his approval rating stood at a meager 31 percent. If this bothered him, he never let on. Polls to the contrary, he knew that he had "done his damnedest," and he devoted the first several years of his retirement to writing two volumes of memoirs and then to feeding his always voracious appetite for the printed word, devouring volumes of history and biography, taking time out for brisk strolls along the streets of his beloved hometown of Independence, Missouri, and maintaining an active interest in the Democratic Party and the conduct of American policy. With each year that has passed since the end of the Truman presidency, the wisdom and rightness of most of his decisions have become increasingly apparent. Before he died, the day after Christmas 1972, Truman even had the satisfaction of seeing his critical star securely on the rise. Today, despite detractors on the far right and far left, many regard him as among the great presidents of the twentieth century and the greatest of the postwar chief executives. In the long retrospect that is history, his appeal as a leader has become irresistible. Excerpted from When the Buck Stops with You: Harry S. Truman on Leadership by Alan Axelrod All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Do Your Damnedestp. xi
Chapter 1 Missouri to the White House, the White House to Missourip. 1
Chapter 2 Establish the Objectivep. 13
Chapter 3 Ride the Tigerp. 43
Chapter 4 Unstuff a Stuffed Shirtp. 79
Chapter 5 Set the Best Examplep. 95
Chapter 6 Hell: Giving and Gettingp. 123
Chapter 7 Bring People Togetherp. 149
Chapter 8 Make Up Your Mindp. 185
Chapter 9 Facts of the Matterp. 225
Chapter 10 Do the Right Thingp. 255
Chapter 11 Use the Best Part of the Dayp. 277
Chapter 12 Reckoningp. 287
Appendix A Truman Timelinep. 293
Recommended Reading: The Sources of When the Buck Stops with Youp. 299
Indexp. 303