It was a rainy afternoon on 12 April 1945 in Washington, D.C., when Sam Rayburn, speaker of the House of Representatives, stepped down from his chair as business concluded early that day. Over at the Senate, Vice President Harry Truman was writing a letter to his mother and sister who lived back in Missouri. He was planning to meet with Rayburn around 5 p.m. for a drink.
Shortly before Truman arrived at Rayburn’s office, the telephone rang. The White House was on the line. The voice on the other end of the receiver asked if Vice President Truman had arrived yet, to which Rayburn replied, “No.” The voice told him to have Harry call the White House as soon as he arrived. Minutes later, Harry walked through the door and placed the call. As the conversation progressed, Rayburn could almost see the color fade from his face.
Harry quickly got over to the White House. Upon arrival, he was escorted to the private living area for the president where first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was waiting. “Harry,” she said slowly, “the president is dead.”
Truman later shared with reporters, “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” In complete shock, he asked the first lady if there was anything he could do for her. Instead, she asked the new president, “Is there anything we can do for you? You’re the one in trouble now.”
Not long afterward, Truman headed back over to Rayburn’s office. After hearing the news, Rayburn looked Truman in the eyes and said, “People will stand in the rain a week to see you and will treat you like a king. They’ll come sliding in and tell you you’re the greatest man alive—but you know and I know you ain’t.”
This fall at the International Hotel, Motel + Restaurant Show in New York, the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s Under 30 Gateway will be hosting an educational seminar titled, “Young leadership: 5 things you need for tomorrow.” In anticipation of this event, I thought about the subject of leadership and was reminded of Harry Truman’s story of becoming the 33rd president of the United States. There are some observations I took from hearing about that rainy afternoon in April of 1945 that I think leaders young and old should know. After all, we never know, just as Truman didn’t, when our “tomorrow” will show up.
1. Be humble – The importance of humility was duly noted as a component of a “Level 5” leader in Jim Collins best-selling work, “Good to Great.” Those leaders, as Collins suggests, had a passion to grow the company and others, while at the same time not looking to glorify themselves in the process. Personally, I think humility is when you don’t think you are better than everyone else. It means you seek to be interested rather than interesting. It means you seek to put others first before yourself.
When Truman became president, he could have been arrogant, but he wasn’t. And just in case he started to believe he was the greatest, Truman’s good friend Rayburn was there to keep him in check. Rayburn, who served as speaker for 17 years (longest in U.S. history), said, “You and I know you ain’t.” It’s a good reminder to surround ourselves with trustworthy confidants and close friends who can keep us grounded. In any industry, when you begin to feel like you’re better than everyone else, you have taken your first step toward failure.
2. Be caring – I love when Truman finds out officially he has become the president and he asks what he can do for Mrs. Roosevelt. He takes a moment to show that he cares about what has happened and empathizes with the first lady. One definition of the word caring is to make provisions or look out for something or someone. If we are going to lead, we need to look out for the interests of others just as much as we would our own. Look for opportunities to show those around us that they matter.
3. Be ready … as much as you can be – I remember growing up playing football in high school for a couple of years. I was not one of the starting players, but I knew that when my number got called I had to be ready to step in and do my job. As a professional in the hotel industry, perhaps you are in a similar position. Your number hasn’t been called yet to take on a certain position or project. You haven’t faced a difficult decision yet or are waiting to take the reins of leading a team of people. What are you doing now to prepare for when your time comes and your number gets called?
Truman wasn’t thought of as a likely choice for being vice president—let alone president of the United States. I don’t think he was fully ready to assume the responsibilities and burdens that come with the territory of being commander in chief. He had only been vice president for 82 days and had few discussions with Roosevelt about world affairs. However, at the same time, I think he was as ready as he could be. Interestingly, in historical polls ranking the presidents by Americans over the years, Truman has never been listed lower than ninth. He has been listed as high as fifth place, with many people considering him to be one of the greatest presidents ever to have taken office.
The hotel industry is unique in that so much attention is placed on taking care of other people’s needs. If we are going to be leaders in hospitality, then we need to start putting other people first. If we are going to be leaders, we have to take moments to care about others, and we must begin preparing before our “tomorrow” comes. I think if we do these things and then apply our skills and knowledge into the mix, we will set ourselves up for greater success.
Mark Williams is Director of Development for Coakley & Williams, one of the nation’s top third-party hotel management companies. In 2006, Mark received his B.S. degree in Hospitality from University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. He also received his MBA from Grand Canyon University’s Ken Blanchard School of Business in 2011. Currently, Mark serves as Chair for the American Hotel & Lodging Associations’ Under 30 Gateway. He can be reached by phone at 301-614-8848 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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