Leadership Lessons of William Henry Harrison

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Our nation’s Founding Fathers were well studied men. When called upon to forge a new nation, they looked upon the lessons of the Classical Age for their source. But it wasn’t merely a litany of Greek and Roman heroes they sought. They dug deeper. They wanted to learn not only what succeeded, but what failed. They learned this about great nations, great government, and great men. Greek literature teaches us that every heroic character contains both good traits and bad traits. We learn the good traits to know what to mimic. We learn the bad traits to know what to avoid. So it is with the leadership lessons we learn from our presidents. Not all those lessons teach us what to do. Some teach us what not to do.

William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773 on his family’s plantation in Charles City County, Virginia. The ninth president of the United States, he was the last one born as a British subject (his father signed the Declaration of Independence), but the first one to have his picture taken while in office. He’s also the only president whose grandson would later become president (Benjamin Harrison served as the 23rd president from 1889 to 1893). He’s perhaps best known as the president who gave the longest inaugural address (taking almost 2 hours to read its 8,445 words) and served the shortest time in office (31 days). At 68 years of age, Harrison was the oldest president to be inaugurated until Ronald Reagan topped him by a year in 1980 (who was then surpassed by Donald Trump who was age 70 when he was sworn in).

Lesson #1: Don’t Get Caught Sleeping on the Job
There aren’t many lessons from 32 days, but there are when you consider the totality of Harrison’s career. After an initially successful military career, including serving in battles that opened up Ohio for settlement, Harrison served as governor of the new Northwest Territory. (Today we’d call it the Midwest.) His primary duty was to negotiate property rights with the various Indian tribes that roamed the Territory. Harrison had a successful run of this until the onset of the War of 1812. It wasn’t without controversy, as competing Indian tribes laid claim to the same land. The Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809) provides a case in point. Negotiated with the Miami tribe, it caught the ire of Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (a.k.a. “The Prophet”).

Tecumseh was a well-regarded orator and he brought those skills with him when he met Harrison in 1810. Tecumseh argued the Treaty of Fort Wayne had to be endorsed by all the tribes. Harrison countered that the Miami tribe had sold only what was theirs. Tecumseh, apparently abandoning one rhetorical trope for a more aggressive one, attempted to incite his warriors to kill Harrison right there and then. Cooler heads prevailed, but Tecumseh still left in a huff, vowing to meet with the British and organize an Indian resistance against the Americans.

With Tecumseh traveling, Harrison was authorized in 1811 to march a force of 1,000 men to convince the Shawnee peace was in their best interest. Harrison arrived at the newly established Shawnee village Prophetstown (guess who was responsible for creating it), arranged for a meeting with the Shawnee leaders, and camped overnight next to the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers. In the early morning of November 7, 1811, while Harrison’s army slept, Tenskwatawa led the Indians in a surprise attack. Though Harrison’s army outnumbered the Indians, the element of surprise caused vastly more casualties on the American side than on the Shawnee side. In a dispatch asked for reinforcements, Harrison failed to make it clear the Americans had won the battle. This miscommunication got picked up by the press and became a rallying cry against the Shawnee (and their soon-to-be British Allies.

Harrison, while victorious, never fully explained why he lost nearly 20% of his troops, and so began his rather nasty relationship with the War Department.

Lesson #2: Attitude Can Trump Achievement
With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Harrison resigned as governor and rejoined the military. Eventually given the rank of major general, he was finally given command of the American troops following the fall of Detroit. He successfully regained the city, then decimated the retreating British and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames. In that battle, the leaders of the Indian resistance were killed (including Tecumseh) and the British general was later court martialed for his conduct during the Battle of the Thames. For the Americans, the Battle of the Thames was second in significance only to the Battle of New Orleans, the fight that propelled Andrew Jackson to the presidency.

You’d think Harrison would have been applauded for his achievement. You’d think wrong. Remember that petty spat with the War Department. It never healed. Following the Battle of the Thames, the Secretary of War decided to split the American command. Harrison received the lesser assignment and his subordinate received the front line troops. Upset, rather than accept this new assignment, Harrison resigned his commission. So, unlike Andrew Jackson, Harrison would spend the quarter century wallowing on the fringe of political relevancy. But then, quite by accident, he discovered a valuable leadership lesson that many continue to use today – and this time, it worked for him.

Lesson #3: Turn Lemons into Lemonade
Things did not go well for Harrison after the war of 1812. After holding a few smaller offices and commissions, he failed spectacularly as envoy to Columbia. He was recalled when Andrew Jackson took office in 1829 and returned to his farm in Ohio. Where once he had one of the first brick homes in the Northwest Territory, now he had a log cabin. Without any savings and only a meager pension, he was forced to subsist on whatever his farm could produce. He tried selling whiskey, but very quickly the effects of alcohol upset him, prompting him to close his distillery. He later told people he had sinned for making whiskey and wished to atone for his error by convincing others to stop producing liquor. He was forced to take a job as a court clerk to survive.

That’s where he was when the Whigs first convinced him to run for president in 1836. It was one of those “guaranteed to lose” campaigns (against the popular Martin Van Buren) and the Whigs made good on their guarantee. Four years later, still working as a court clerk, the Whigs came calling again. This time they had a fighting chance, as the Panic of 1837 eroded Van Buren’s popularity. The Democrats, sensing their candidate’s vulnerability, immediately launched a bitter campaign against Harrison. They made fun of his age, calling him “Granny Harrison.” They made fun of his quitting the military before the end of the War of 1812 by calling him “the petticoat general.” They even made fun of where he lived, saying “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.” This was especially ironic given Harrison’s stance on alcohol.

A lesser man might have folded, but a leader doubles down. Rather than run from these “out-of-touch-old-man” references, Harrison turned the tables. He did something no one before him ever did. Although it was considered impolite to campaign, to show his stamina that’s exactly what Harrison did. On the campaign trail, Harrison drew crowds of 60,000, with people standing in lines three miles long to see him. Van Buren, in contrast, stayed “above the fray” and remained secluded in the White House, confident the Whigs were too much in disarray to bring in the votes necessary to beat him.

The Harrison campaign became the first modern campaign, with jingles and slogans and memorabilia (including log cabin shaped bottles of whiskey from E.C. Booz distillery – Yep, that where we get the word “booze” from). One zealous group of supporters pushed a large “Harrison” ball for hundreds of miles (thus giving us the term “keep the ball rolling”). But of all the famous sayings and slogans to come out of this campaign, none tops the now ubiquitous “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.”

Harrison’s campaign turned all those negatives around and made them into crowd pleasing and crowd generating catchphrases. In terms of today, they went viral, and brought Harrison a surprising victory.

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