A recent visit to the Truman Little White House in Key West, Florida, inspired this post.

Harry S. Truman was not well educated by Eastern elite standards.  He attended Spalding’s Commercial College for one year and later took law school classes at night.  But being a Roosevelt vice president was not much of a job, as graphically explained by FDR’s first Vice-President, John Nance “Cactus Jack” Gardner (look it up).

At the time of Roosevelt’s death, eighty-two days into his third term, Truman had only met with FDR on three occasions, each time doing little more than exchanging pleasantries about each other’s wives.

It was only after being sworn in as President that Truman was informed of the Manhattan Project and the likelihood that he would be called upon to make perhaps the most monumental decision placed before any leader in the history of the world – the decision to drop the first atomic bomb. Truman filled out the remainder of FDR’s term and ran for his own in 1948, defeating Thomas E Dewey.  

After the war, Truman advanced an agenda that focused on making the United States the leader of the free world by rebuilding Europe and countering the influence of the Soviet Union.  Domestically, much of his “Fair Deal” was blocked by a hostile Congress. Stalemate in the Korean War and the rise of McCarthyism caused him the loss of public support and Truman ended his term with a historically low approval rating of 22%.

Time has been kind to President Truman, and today, he is considered among the best US presidents, behind Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. (C-SPAN, 2021)

How did this poorly educated, former hat salesman from middle America succeed among the Washington establishment, barons of industry, northeastern brahmans and flocks of Ivy League attorneys?  Perhaps it was because of his commitment to continuous learning.

Truman wrote: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers,” and he followed that prescription.

“I had to study whether I wanted to or not.  Read the Old & New Testaments King James translation three times before I was fifteen, and all the histories of world leaders and heroes I could find.  Our public library in Independence had about three or four thousand volumes, including the encyclopedias! Believe it or not I read ‘em all – including the enclo’s. Maybe I was a damphool but it served me well when my terrible trial came.”

(From a letter to former Secretary of State Dean Atchison, December 18, 1962.)

This principle also applies to nonprofit leaders, executives and board members, who must keep improving their knowledge and leadership skills.  Nonprofit agencies can have their own “terrible trials,” and a well-prepared board will be better able to respond to the moment – or even take measures to avoid them. 

Regardless of the services your agency delivers – healthcare, musical performances, museums, or youth sports – everything is changing all the time, and to be an effective leader, you must stay on top of those changes. The variety of changes that can impact programs is virtually limitless.  That may be obvious for nonprofit healthcare providers, but think about how changes in community demographics might impact performing arts groups or how advances in the safety of sporting equipment could impact a youth league.  

We have a family friend who, in social settings, likes to ask everyone to report what they are currently reading.  That question immediately blanks out from my memory the title of whatever book is on my bedside table.  But it’s still a great question to pose to your CEO or board chairman. Perhaps she is rereading her copy of “Good to Great” or studying “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.” Regardless of the answer, it will reinforce the board’s support or expectation that continuous learning must be a priority and will probably ensure that the question will have a better answer next time it is asked.

What should leaders be reading? Here are some suggestions for you when you create your personal reading list:

1. Your local newspaper.  If you want to become a true Community Benefit Corporation, you need to understand the needs and challenges of your community.  Start there.

2. Current information about your industry and your role.  In today’s world, the internet offers directors a vast amount of current information on any topic of interest.  Some national associations, such as the American Hospital Association, have developed excellent content aimed at volunteer boards.   But for every charitable cause, there are newsletters, blogs and podcasts.  Ideally, directors would make a habit of circulating this information among themselves, and Management should have a role in getting the board real-time updates.

3. Management Classics.  The fundamentals of leadership and governance have been the subject of many excellent books over the past 100 years.  Here are a few:

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins (2001)

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (2013)

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You by John C. Maxwell (2007)

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni (2002)

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras (1994)

Start with Why How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek (2009)

4. Biographies of Great Leaders, including Business Leaders.  Great leaders can be a helpful example, even though some of their techniques are best avoided.  But understanding their keys to success can be beneficial, even though you might choose not to use them.

Truman by David McCullough (2003) Pulitzer Prize Winner

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years by Carl Sandburg Pulitzer Prize Winner

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)

It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell (2012)

The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived:  Thomas Watson, Jr. and the Epic Story of How IBM Created the Digital Age by Ralph Watson McElvenny and Marc Wortman (2023)

The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company by David Packard (2006)

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Robert (2015)

5. Something deep and inspirational. Inspiration is personal and can come from various sources, often unexpectedly.  You may already have your secret source – but here are a few avenues you might pursue:

Harry Truman read the Old and New Testaments.

For deep dives, consider Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1946), The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama (1998) or Life Worth Living by Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun and Ryan McAnnally-Linz (2023).

Today, many people are rediscovering Marcus Aurelius’s The Meditations of the Emperor (circa 180 AD).

Finally, I personally know people who have been inspired by Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (1997) and Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book (1992).

Regardless of where you find your wisdom and inspiration, I hope it serves you well when your “terrible troubles” come.

RL