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Presidential Flops: America’s Worst White House Leaders
March 9, 2023 | Category: Blog, Intelligent Leadership
Leadership coaching sees the US presidency as the ultimate test of leadership. Throughout history, some US presidents passed this test with flying colors. Others failed it. Failure at that level translated to political conflict, human rights abuses, and civil war. Here’s a look at the worst residents of the White House.
The best US presidents rose to the occasion during crises and saw the country through unprecedented challenges. They made decisions that landed them firmly on the right side of history.
The presidents that failed to do so while making decisions that may have been popular at the time, but got them stuck on the wrong side of history, are the worst White House leaders.
From a leadership coaching perspective, determining the dregs of the White House is an exercise on the same level as finding the cream of the crop. Hindsight is always clear, and judging presidential decisions through the prism of history isn’t particularly challenging.
The title of worst US president is a toss-up between Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan.
Is Andrew Johnson the Worst US President?
“This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”- Andrew Johnson.
The quote sums up Andrew Johnson’s attitude toward race and women’s rights. There was not much love lost between Abraham Lincoln’s direct successor and the republican Congress of the time.
Having assumed office as the result of Honest Abe’s assassination, Johnson sought to undo the accomplishments of his illustrious predecessor. He opposed giving the freed slaves US citizenship by vetoing the Fourteenth Amendment.
Johnson also vetoed the Military Reconstruction Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Freedmen’s Bureau Act. He used foul language in allegedly booze-fueled speeches against his political opponents and illegally fired his secretary of war. He was the first and one of only three presidents to face impeachment (the other two were Bill Clinton and Donald J. Trump).
Is It James Buchanan?
Another leadership coaching nightmare, James Buchanan, is many a historian’s top choice as the worst president of the US.
In office from 1857 to 1861, Buchanan was a staunch supporter of slavery. His actions, or the lack thereof, set the stage for the Civil War.
During his tenure, the Supreme Court handed down a pro-slavery decision that defined African Americans as sub-humans. It also denied them citizenship and cemented the rights of individuals to enslave people.
Buchanan ignored the first signs of the birth of the Confederacy as the warning that foreshadowed what historians may still call “Buchanan’s War.” As the president who brought about the deadliest national conflict in US history, Buchanan’s candidacy for the worst White House leader title is solid.
Another president who had a hand in setting the stage for the Civil War, Franklin Pierce’s administration is defined by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Act created a hotbed of civil unrest and division in the new territories between pro- and anti-slavery settlers.
Pierce’s actions resulted in civil unrest and conflict.
Warren G. Harding
From the perspective of executive coaching, Warren Harding’s brief presidential tenure was rife with examples of leadership immaturity. His administration was embroiled in several corruption scandals, some of which are downright revolting, even in hindsight.
Attorney general Harry Doughtery and secretary of the interior Albert Fall decided that peddling oil rights on federal land was a feasible way to build their personal wealth. Fall may have gone to prison for the deed, but no one ever charged Doughtery.
No executive coaching professional will ever regard John Tyler as a model of leadership maturity and efficiency. The tenth president of the United States regarded himself as a sort of monarch whose prerogatives included single-handedly setting the legislative agenda of the nation.
His attitude led to friction with Congress and his party. His cabinet resigned, and his party expelled him as Tyler’s actions blocked domestic legislation. It didn’t help that he took the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War.
At first glance, business coaching may not seem to have much to do with politics, but it is never farfetched to consider the US presidency as the ultimate test of leadership. From a business coaching perspective, presidents can and will fail or succeed the same way business leaders do.