4 Small Business Leadership Lessons from Past U.S. Presidents

When you’re tapped to hold top office in the most powerful country in the world, you need to be both a good leader and a good marketer. You should be able to sell your ideas and inspire an entire population to emulate your ideals.

These daunting tasks aren’t too far off from being a small business owner. You need to convey authority as a leader when facing employees and stakeholders. You need to be convincing when selling to customers or prospects. You need to communicate well in order to get your message across.

If you’re a small business owner, it’s a good idea to learn from our successful past presidents. Take note of the following leadership concepts our former heads of state understood and applied during their tenures.

Abraham Lincoln did not wait for people to teach him.

As a young man, Abraham Lincoln admitted to not enjoying the physical labor that came with being born into a working-class family. Instead, he dabbled in reading, writing, poetry, and related disciplines. These interests helped him become a persuasive orator and masterful politician later in life.

The majority of the U.S. presidents had degrees from Ivy League institutions. Lincoln didn’t. He was largely self-educated. He just read a lot and developed a love for lifelong learning.

Just like Lincoln, you shouldn’t hesitate to learn on your own, especially as a small business owner. Use the resources at your disposal to acquire knowledge and learn new skills.

It doesn’t matter what your personal circumstances are. True leaders are never scared of continuous learning and constant improvement.

George Washington built a team of people who were smarter than he was.

At the end of the American Revolutionary War, George Washington found himself surrounded by people who wanted positions in government. Knowing the dangers of selecting brown-nosing politicians, he exercised extreme care in choosing his appointees.

His initial cabinet consisted of individuals who represented each major area. He had one from New England, one from the mid-Atlantic, and two Southerners. These team members held different philosophical beliefs. This often led to frequent yet intellectual sparring on important issues.

Washington, aware of his lack of formal education, made sure that he was surrounded by the best minds. “He had no fear that subordinates would upstage him and never wanted subservient courtiers who he could overpower,” says this article from Be Yourself.

Over the course of his term, he appointed different people with varying backgrounds and capabilities until he felt he got the right mix.

Small business leaders should take their cue from this practice. It’s always smart to form a team of people who would debate about anything but eventually come up with the best solution to any problem.

Creating a strong team doesn’t entail finding people who will agree with you all the time.

Thomas Jefferson believed that a little rebellion is a good thing.

In a letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.” He went on to say it was “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

He was referring to an armed uprising led by Daniel Shays. The insurrection took place because of the increasing dissatisfaction towards the government. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time,” Jefferson said.

This eventually prompted leaders in government to take action towards preventing future rebellions.

As a small business leader, shakeups shouldn’t faze you.

For instance, take RingCentral CEO Vlad Shmunis. This is a man who quit his high-paying job to start his first technology company. In a Fortune article, he writes that making your business your full-time job should be a great motivator because it’s a big risk.

When you get the chance to go all out on something you truly believe in, don’t be afraid to seize this opportunity. Be a rebel in your own right!

Moreover, rebels—the effective ones at least—are always in charge of leading change. Even if they fail, they carry the greater power because they have become, to an extent, agents of influence.

Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t afraid to abandon ideas.

French prime minister Leon Blum had nothing but admiration for the former president Franklin D. Roosevelt. He commented that the revered leader of the free world had the courage to try one method after another.

He also said that the president wasn’t afraid to try something else until he found a method that succeeded.

In the book, “Franklin D. Roosevelt: The New Deal and War,” Michael Heale writes that, instead of having a coherent ideology, the president was “guided by a belief in action and experimentation.”

Heale adds, “Roosevelt confusingly embraced and abandoned ideas and challenged his associates to devise yet more remedies.”

Open-mindedness and flexibility are two key characteristics small business owners should also possess.

Instead of moving forward with an idea that looks good at first but turns out to be a path to failure, learn to stop and explore other options.

Like Roosevelt, knowing when failing is the better option and immediately moving on to the next thing can open doors to new opportunities.


It’s truly amazing how these great presidents can give simple, actionable templates for small business leaders. In essence, leadership should be universal. The things that make a leader great should be more or less the same, whether we’re talking about a small neighborhood shop or the New World.

How about you? Have you discovered other small business tips from anyone who’s been in the Oval Office? Share them below.


About the author
Klaris Chua


Klaris is a digital content marketer who has written many pieces on startups and small business communications. She is also passionate about technology, collaboration tools, and digital design.