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Contemplating Leadership Through an Earlier Presidential Lens

         Contemplating wisdom from America’s 19th President

(NOTE: The following is a chapter excerpt from my upcoming free book entitled, Favorite Leadership Quotes.)

Call me naive or idealistic, but I have always believed in humanity’s inherent greatness. Over the years, I’ve concluded something else: humanity’s greatness remains untapped, untested and sometimes even both.

Living in a comfortable, default mode, most of us are familiar with answering to authorities. We follow well-worn paths of commonality and act as responders rather than creators. Unaware of the greatness within, we often fail to mine, develop and manifest our better selves.

James Buchanan was familiar with leadership, but he was also tested by its mettle. The 15th President of the United States, Buchanan aspired to become comparable in stature to America’s first President, George Washington.

Progressing from Minister to Russia to Secretary of State and later Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Buchanan was on his way to diplomatic stardom. But he was ultimately presented with a momentous challenge: he rose to President just prior to the Civil War.

Confronted with mounting divisions between America’s northern and southern factions, he tried without success to strike common ground. Believing that secession of the states was illegal, he also believed in the illegality of war.

History reports that Buchanan’s inability to relate to the factions in his country left him perpetually branded as one of the worst U.S. Presidents in history.

Rewriting History’s Record

Despite his inability to lead others during the 19th century and help them see the proverbial light, Buchanan’s quote resonates clearly to us today. It echoes the spirit of a leader deeply committed to his convictions.

A lawyer by trade, James Buchanan believed strongly in the law and referred to it as his only master. He clearly hoped that America’s social conscience would arise, averting blinding bloodshed, economic destruction and deep emotional sorrow.

What sets Buchanan apart for future history was his attempt to elicit higher ideals from both staff and citizenry.

Though Buchanan failed to elicit the better bounty within mankind at the time, the greatness Buchanan believed in concerning his fellow man still awaits its virtuous manifestation.

Jesus, Gandhi and MLK, Jr.

At present, I’m easily reminded of the historic Jesus. He taught us that the ultimate “kingdom” was to be found “within” us. Leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. also come to mind for a similar reason. Eschewing boorish behaviors and human violence, they promoted human advancement through attainment of inner peace and self-governance.

At some future date, estimations of the formerly denigrated President Buchanan may be viewed through a higher and more illuminated lens. Buchanan believed in the inherent greatness of his own people, even when they were unable to see it in themselves.

As our human race evolves, becoming sufficiently tempered by brute behavior and the ill effects of war, historic records may be revised. We may eventually uphold James Buchanan as an early, if misunderstood, political visionary.

We might even celebrate the man as a harbinger of leadership for a nobler human race.


Like James Buchanan, your present day convictions about humanity’s inherent greatness may deny you popular accolades. Not everyone may respond to the greater behaviors and consciousness you promote, exemplify and elicit.

But your ultimate legacy may burn brighter in years to come.

Beliefs we carry in the inherently better qualities of man stand to ultimately find their way to the surface. What we see, believe in, and hope for have the capacity to convey emotionally and energetically to those around us. Such convictions, consistently applied in our manner of living, help convert the bruised public psyche and also heal its battered subconscious.

As we exude our own greatness, others are offered glimpses of their greater selves. And they are consequently freed to respond in like fashion.

If you’re inspired by quality leadership, give some thought to the idea presented by President Buchanan.

Through elicitation rather than domination, consider how you might aid others in discovering their own greatness, too!

Maura is an International Speaker on Influence, Leadership and Emotional Intelligence

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