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Leadership Lessons

by Ed Halpaus
Grand Lodge Education Officer
Grand Lodge of A. F. & A. M. of Minnesota

The book “When the Buck Stops With You” by Alan Axelrod, and is subtitled “Harry S. Truman on Leadership.” It is a good book on leadership, and it is a good book to read if you would like to get a glimpse of Brother Truman; the man and his values.

The book instead of being divided into chapters is divided into lessons. Since today is the 21st of February and tomorrow is the actual recognized anniversary of Brother and President George Washington’s birth, and also that today is Presidents Day here in the U.S. I thought including a couple of leadership lessons from the book just mentioned that have to do with Brother Washington as well as with Brother Truman might be interesting to you.


“An excessive show of authority can easily degenerate into toughness for its own sake, just to show who’s boss.” Quoted in Where the Buck Stops: The Personal and Private Writings of Harry S. Truman (Margaret Truman, ed.)

In his discussion of George Washington in the posthumously published Where the Buck Stops, Truman praised the first president for his vigorous response to the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, a 1791 tax revolt in Pennsylvania: “He sent 15,000 soldiers into Pennsylvania and showed up in person to review the troops, a simple and pointed show of federal strength, and the rioting stopped and the people of Pennsylvania paid the tax like everybody else. When Washington’s imperious secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, decided to underscore this demonstration of the power of central government by arresting those he deemed the ringleaders of the revolt, Washington responded by issuing pardons to all the men.

Failure to assert authority sooner or later destroys leadership, however, a punitive approach, the exercise of power for its own sake, is even more destructive. It dissolves the bonds of common cause and leads not merely to an erosion of leadership, but to the dissolution of the organization itself. The strong leader is strongest in restraint.


“[President Washington] just talked to the people and explained things.” Quoted in Where the Buck Stops: The Personal and Private Writings of Harry S. Truman (Margaret Truman, ed.)

Truman, who achieved election to the presidency in his own right by tirelessly campaigning cross-country, was impressed with the first American president’s willingness to travel by stagecoach and on horseback throughout the new nation for the purpose of talking to the people and “explain[ing] things” to them, directly and in person. Like Truman’s own whistle-stop campaign, this was very hard work and made an inordinate demand on Washington’s rime. But he did it, and he did it because he would have agreed with Truman that “every president ought to make it his business to give the people an exact outline of what his program is and why he wants it.”

Wade into the organization you lead. Ask questions. Invite questions. Find out—directly—what most concerns your constituents. Communicate—directly—what most concerns you.

Final Note: From the book “G. Washington: Master Mason” by Allen E. Roberts:

[Washington was] “never to busy to entertain a friend, or to salute those who worked hard for America. When Benjamin Franklin returned home, Washington sent him a note on September 25, 1785:”

“Dear Sir: Amid the public gratulations on your safe return to America, after a long absence and the many eminent services you have rendered it, for which as a benefited person I feel the obligation, permit an individual to join the public voice in expressing a sense of them; and to assure you, that, as no one entertains more respect for your character, so none can salute you with more sincerity, or with greater pleasure, than I do on the occasion. With the highest regard and greatest consideration, I am, etc.”

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Last modified: March 22, 2014