Presidents Day: A Time To Celebrate Leadership

Many people ask, “Why do we have a Presidents Day?”. I'd like to answer this question because it's more important than most people realize.

Presidents Day began as two separate holidays—one celebrating George Washington’s birthday, the other celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s. In 1971, they were combined into one holiday. Gradually, the holiday grew to included a broader list of past presidents until now, when we celebrate all the presidents. Still, it seems to me that we should in fact celebrate Presidents Day not for our presidents, but for ourselves.

What is Presidents Day if not a day we celebrate leadership? A national holiday should be in line with the customs and traditions of the people. A holiday should reflect who we are and what we value. We are a grateful and generous people and one of the things we are grateful for is the people who led us through tough times. Presidents Washington and Lincoln were two such people. But in our excessive generosity and gratitude, perhaps we have given them too much credit for the success of our nation and too little to the people they led. But they certainly did their share, so let’s give credit where credit is due. Both of these presidents sacrificed much more than most presidents and displayed stamina in the face of circumstances few leaders have had to weather since.

Like America, Washington did not start off perfect but he grew in his public life and rose to the challenge of his office. Early on, he fought unsuccessfully in several battles and later as the Commander of the Continental Army weathered several years of stalemates and losing battles. He was less a military genius and more the idealized embodiment of the country. As a young man, he was pragmatic, opportunistic and not exceedingly virtuous, but he was also strong, brave and persistent. He was a staunch believer in economic freedom which was the issue of his time. At the time, and perhaps even now, he represented our nation's strengths and weaknesses as well. Later in life, he became more humble, wise and compliant. He became a person for the fledgling country to put its faith in during very trying times. Washington recognized the nation's need for a leader who would let it grow so he took a rather hands-off approach. Finally, in doing the most remarkable thing any ruler can do, he walked away from power. We needed him to be a great leader for our sake as we carved out a new nation, so we used his image for that purpose. And he allowed us to.

Lincoln's struggles were different as he bore the emotional strain of a war that was tearing the country apart. He had to make very tough decisions and navigated politics and morals with limited success. Ultimately, he died for leading the good fight. Today, we may perceive Lincoln as a more worthy leader than many people of his time or before. Perhaps this is true, but many argue that this is anachronistic, owning to the morals of Lincolns time aligning more closely to those of the current age. He clearly demonstrated selflessness, integrity, courage and wisdom in leadership we have rarely seen before or since. He remains for us the symbol of many great virtues of leadership. He is less the representative of our country's personality, but more of what we strive to be than what we were or are.

For all of their virtues and successes, it is not the person we celebrate in this country, it is the ideals. We look to Washington and Lincoln as examples of good leadership who embodied patience, strength, wisdom and vision. They both led a good fight; Washington to claim independence in the face of tyranny and Lincoln to preserving the nation and its soul. We honor what they accomplished on the outside, but we also celebrate how we were moved on the inside as individuals and as a nation. Because of them, we are a better nation and a better people. They took us from chaos to order. They had a vision, took bold action, convinced us to follow and were persistent. This is as good a description of leadership as you're going to find. But here is the point of this article. They are not the only ones.

It was not just Lincoln or Washington or any of the presidents who made us better. It would be delusional to think so. They were supported by a great many leaders, who fought just as hard and just as virtuously to accomplish the same goals. Since their time, many subsequent leaders have come along to pick up where they left off. Some as politicians, but most as servants to the country in other forms; teachers, ministers, health care providers, business people and a great many other vocations and professions. I’m not trying to blend Presidents Day with Labor Day, only to point out that Presidents Day is a day we formally celebrate the leaders’ impact on our nation and our culture. It does not take a president to be a leader. It is only from these thousands of subsequent leaders teaching us, role modeling and taking bold action which made America what it is today.

President John F. Kennedy once said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors. The men it remembers”. If we wish to have good leaders in the future, we must communicate to future leaders what we are looking for. As the social psychologist B.F. Skinner pointed out, you get what you reward. So let's reward virtuous leadership by celebrating it on Presidents Day. We must also remind all current and future presidents that it is their office and leadership itself that we hold in high regard. Many believe titles and rank are given to remind others of their own importance, but rank and title are also a way to remind those who have them of their responsibilities. Only when they understand this fully can we hope they will fulfill their duties. By continually reminding them of this, we hope they act more congruently with the title.

On this Presidents Day, remember what it really is, a day to celebrate leadership and recognize our need for it, but it is also a day to remind leaders of their responsibilities to those who let them lead.

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