How many of us have ever been president of something? I was elected president of the Southwest High School German Club in the fall of my senior year. I wasn’t ambitious or qualified; I just had the most Germanic name so I was the leader of choice. My only responsibilities involved overseeing the annual fundraiser, the Gummy Bear sale, and making sure we had enough competitors for the Foreign Language Fair. Gummy Bears were still very exotic in 1984, so they were an easy sell. Recruiting classmates to perform plays in German was a different story. We ended up with only two entries in the spoken German category; my best friends supported me by performing “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” auf deutsch and yours truly and another friend performed a depressing dialog about a teenage girl who becomes pregnant and tries to convince her Mutti that a stork is responsible. Whether it was the material we chose or the talent we presented, none of us left the fair with a ribbon that day. Sad, since we had given up a Friday night to be in top form for Saturday morning competition; and we didn’t win any resume-building accolades. It was that Saturday evening that I decided being president, being the one responsible for all, is not for me.
Being a president is hard work. Are any of us really capable or qualified to be president? The definitions of president sound pretty impressive: head of state; chief executive; person who presides over an assembly, corporation or group; one who governs a body of people, etc. What, with all that power, who wouldn’t want to preside? Who hasn’t thought, just once, “Heck, I could be a better president than that guy!”
Consider the gauntlet a presidential hopeful must run before being elected or appointed president. I’m not just talking about being POTUS; I’m talking about being president of the booster club, the company, the charity organization. To be president of anything you must possess ambition, thick skin and the strong belief that you have something to offer. You need to be convinced of what you stand for and defend it mightily. You must risk offending, upsetting and leapfrogging obstacles in your way. You’re required to be sycophantic and charming and accept being revered and despised. Whatever gains you make by becoming president of something, they are often offset by what you lose as being president of something.
Who takes the fall when a company’s earnings fall below expectations? The president. Who gets the blame when the philanthropy’s board members resign and donations stop coming in? The president. Who is reviled when unpopular policies are put into place and employees no longer get a 401k match or can wear jeans on Fridays? You guessed it, the president.
Who gets the credit when a company has a record IPO? Not the president who leads the company and hires the specialists who build and sell the products, it’s the board of directors, the analysts, the market makers. Who takes the victory lap when a team wins the national championship? Not the university president who hires the coach and allocates the budget, but the coach and the players. So, it sounds like as president, you get all of the blame and none of the glory. Now, remind me again why anyone would want to be president?
In the 223 years since George Washington was elected the first president of the United States, we’ve had only 44 men serve our great country in that role. And among those 44 men who served, there are some whose names we don’t recognize, some whose names we celebrate, and some whose names we’d rather forget. But no matter what our political ideology, education, income or belief system, we should always recognize and respect the office of the president of the United State and the man, or woman, who serves in that role. We ought to respect the role of president of anything, because it is not an easy role to play. You try finding a 17-year-old who wants to give up his Saturday to perform Ali Baba in German . . . You try being president of a sorority leading 85 young women, 64 of whom don’t like each other . . . and why not give a shot to running a business, a military, a social services network and an education system, simultaneously. No thanks, you say?
Then on this President’s Day, let us renew our respect for leadership even if we do not agree with the leader. Let us sympathize with those in leadership positions who assume significant personal risk and sacrifice because of what they believe in. And let us try to be more compassionate to those who take the risks to take the lead.
Kersten Rettig is a marketing and public relations professional and mother of two future presidents.