Over a long career, I have had the good fortune to learn something about how CEOs exercise leadership. Additionally, in another life I have been up close and personal with several U.S. presidents.
According to the Conference Board, confidence levels in CEOs declined in the last three months of 2018 to 42 percent — the lowest since 2012, despite most major measurements of the U.S. economy being healthy.
Similarly, the confidence level in President Donald Trump is in the 40s, according to Pew Research.
Leaders in business and politics share common ground with the public.
Typically, CEOs must develop skills in communication with employees, shareholders, customers and the public to be effective. Additionally, implementing company vision and mission and laying out both short- and long-term plans are essential responsibilities for successful CEOs.
Among those with whom I worked closely decades ago at the Minnesota Business Partnership (MBP), Lew Lehr of 3M, Bruce Atwater of General Mills, David Koch of Graco and Ed Spencer of Honeywell — on whose corporate planning staff I had served previously — provided many valuable lessons.
The MBP, begun in 1975 as an experiment in bringing CEOs into the arena of state public policy, focused on solid research, candor and relationship-building, especially on economic and social issues.
These skills were used to advise Minnesota leadership on everything from education policy to workplace requirements, especially with governors and legislators.
Important soft skills were acknowledged: A person who is considered to have good character and consistently exhibits integrity, honesty, courage, loyalty, fortitude and virtue can have a lasting impact.
Interacting with presidents
Personal impressions must account for something; here are some of mine regarding presidents I have encountered.
The first president I met personally was Richard Nixon in the East Room of the White House. When the crowd thinned, we struck up a conversation. He noted an upside down green flag on my lapel, inquiring as to what it was. I said something like "this is a statement about our environment and the importance of clean air and water," noting his creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. When I offered the pin to him, he demurred. I noted that he seemed understated, almost shy even after decades in the national political limelight.
It was Gerald Ford, with whom I had regular contact during his 28-month presidency, who replaced Nixon in 1974 upon his resignation. Ford was particularly attentive to me when I became chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party as we rebuilt ourselves into the Independent-Republicans of Minnesota. At the suggestion of his former law partner from Grand Rapids days, I was selected to introduce President Ford at a Detroit meeting. Ford, it was reported the next day by the Washington Post, gave the most "energized talk of his presidency," crediting my enthusiastic introduction for helping to fire him up.
After his presidency, I got to know Jimmy Carter at a book signing in St. Paul where I pitched him on speaking to a faith-based youth leadership program. Gracious and friendly, he said he had a previous commitment on that date. He wrote us a very nice, supportive endorsement letter, however.
I spent a day taking Ronald Reagan to speaking events in St. Paul and Mankato shortly after he retired as a two-term California governor in 1975. He was quiet but most courteous and pleasant, asking a few questions and focusing attention on me rather than himself. Reagan, who defeated Carter in 1980, was a remarkably gifted speaker whose use of humor and pathos could move audiences. A person could not help but like the soft-spoken former actor whose eight years in office are often heralded by those who make such judgments.
I had the good fortune of meeting one-on-one with George H.W. and Barbara Bush numerous times.
Shortly before the 1980 election, they invited me to join them on a Minnesota campaign swing. We chatted about the political dynamics of the Midwest. While he made me believe my counsel was valued, on reflection, there was little that I could offer him in the days before his successful election as Reagan's vice president.
I spent most of an afternoon with Bill Clinton four years before his 1992 election as president. Clearly, the young governor was the smartest guy in the room at a Little Rock, Ark., meeting to which I was invited by Sam Walton, who served as chairman of the session dealing with state economic and education challenges.
Lastly, Donald Trump, when he was exploring a presidential run back in 2000, joined with Gov. Jesse Ventura as his host for a Minnesota event that I helped to organize.
The late-arriving Trump had command of the room, talking little of presidential policy. He left that meeting early, opting to wait 16 years before ultimately making a successful run for top office.
One observation about my experiences with both private- and public-sector leaders: the CEOs and the seven American presidents treated me with respect.
Chuck Slocum is president of the Williston Group, a management consulting firm based in Minnetonka. Reach him at Chuck@WillistonGroup.com.