Woodrow Wilson on Leadership

woodrow wilson


Woodrow Wilson wanted to save the world. He could not save himself from his fatal flaw of stubbornness which undermined everything he had striven to obtain.

Lesson No. 1: Inspire Others with a Vision

Jerry Ford was not the first football coach to become president of the United States. That honor belongs to Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson became a professor of history and of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he also coached the football team. He developed one of the school's greatest football teams. Wilson told his players, "Go in to win. Don't admit defeat before you start."

At school, he showed great enthusiasm in everything that he did. "Every man in his class," said one of his students, "felt inspired to do his very best, not because of any exhortation or threat, or even suggestion, from Wilson himself, but from the very atmosphere of his personality; not a feeling of fear or consequences was present, but a feeling that you were ashamed if you were not at your best."

Woodrow Wilson in his First Inaugural Address declared we can always make America better and he did with his New Freedom program,

Lesson No. 2: Believed in Yourself

As Wilson had told a group of friends outside his home on Armistice Day in 1923: "I am not one of those who have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for... That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns."

Lesson No. 3: Choose a Mentor

Young Thomas Woodrow Wilson idolized his father. He would listen to his preacher's father's sermons. In turn, he learned to speak well on almost any topic. They would talk and walk to explore their surroundings. As Tommy grew older, his father would read a passage aloud from a favorite author, and they would pick it apart to see how the ideas could be expressed better. Wilson often said that he was "the best instructor, the most inspiring companion...that a youngster ever had." A famous historian once said that "until after he was forty years old, Woodrow Wilson never made an important decision of any kind without first seeking his father's advice." In turn, Wilson inspired a generation of Democratic politicians such as Franklin D. Roosevelt to follow in his footsteps.

Lesson No. 4: Be a Great Communicator

Wilson did not learn the alphabet until he was nine and had not mastered the basics of reading until the age of eleven. Thanks to his father's coaching, he became a great speaker. At Princeton University, he gained a reputation as a debater. Wilson sued every spare to polish his speaking techniques and practice the famous speeches of such men like Patrick Henry and Daniel Wester. He practiced where he could, whether alone in the woods near the university or in his father's empty church during his visits home. Whatever it took to develop his power as a public speaker, he was willing to do. Wilson's direct, honest, and eloquent manner of speaking inspired his listeners. From the very beginning, Wilson had a powerful influence on the students. Many of them considered him the greatest classroom lecturer they had ever had. It was not uncommon for them to cheer him at the end of his lectures. Wilson's lecture room was one of the largest in the university, accommodated more than four hundred students. In some of his courses, every seat would be taken.

Lesson No. 5: Fight for What You Believe in

Woodrow Wilson became the president of Princeton University. He took on the college eating clubs. These clubs admitted a few wealthy students. Wilson thought it was undemocratic that most people were not permitted to join. Wilson attacked the clubs as bastions of privilege. He tried to get rid of them. Although he was not successful, the people of New Jersey admired him for fighting against privilege. They made him their governor. Then the rest of the American people elected him president.

Lesson No. 6: Be Able to Work with Others; Don't defeat Yourself

Woodrow Wilson had the United States fight on the side of the Allies in World War I. He became the first president to leave the country. He went to Versailles, France to negotiate a treaty to end World War I.

Wilson tried to get the treaty approved by Congress. He refused to listen to his advisors when the Senate wanted some minor changes in the treaty. Before Wilson had become president, he had written a book on how a president should get along with Congress. He ignored his own advice. The treaty was defeated when he refused to compromise.

In 1929, Winston Churchill commented on Woodrow Wilson "The spacious philanthropy which [Wilson] exhaled upon Europe stopped quite sharply at the coast of his own country...Peace and goodwill among all nations abroad, but no truck with the Republican Party at home." James C. Humes noted, Wilson failed to elicit Henry Cabot Lodge, who along with Theodore Roosevelt, had long written and championed the idea of League of Nations out of false pride. Wilson came close to achieving his dream, but, unfortunately, was so focused on creating the league to follow the blueprint he designed that the League of Nations was doomed to failure. Had Woodrow Wilson been more welcoming to the compromises presented by his adversaries, this might have improved the League of Nations to be more successful with the United States as a member. His inability to compromise and to work for others proved fatal to his dream.


Woodrow Wilson had a great strength which became a fatal flaw. His willingness to fight for what he believed in carried him to great heights. But when he refused to compromise, this became stubbornness which defeated what he hoped to be his greatest legacy -- world peace.

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