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Woodrow Wilson: ‘All big men are dreamers’

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

With his famous optimism, risk-taking and hatred of compromise, President Woodrow Wilson went for maximum outcomes. He failed big and won big. Welcome, Woodrow Wilson.

EL: Mr. President, in your view, what is the mark of a leader?

Wilson: The willingness to dream. We grow great by dreams. All big men are dreamers. They see things in the soft haze of a spring day or in the red fire of a winter’s night. Some of us let these dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they come true.

EL: How do you achieve your dreams?

Wilson: I not only use all the brains I have, but all I can borrow.

EL: In your early years, as president of Princeton University, you undertook reforms that strengthened the faculty and improved academic standards, but as time went on, you lost a series of battles, including one that came to be known as “The Battle of Princeton.” Why didn’t you consult with anyone before you acted?

Wilson: Because I was right. Those battles strengthened me immensely. I proceeded to become governor of New Jersey and president of the United States.

EL: You harshly attacked those who disagreed with you. For example, one professor named Mark Baldwin.

Wilson: Well, and he lived to regret having suggested that I was wrong. If you want to make enemies, try to change something.

EL: What would you say to young leaders who look for the highest-paying career?

Wilson: You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you im­­pov­erish yourself if you forget the errand.

EL: After the war ended in 1918, you decided to attend the Paris Peace Con­­ference, making you the first sitting president to set foot in Europe. The European public adored your idealism, and 2 million fans mobbed you, so you used your popularity to create a League of Nations in the hope of stopping wars. Why don’t Ameri­cans better appreciate what you accomplished?

Wilson: We are citizens of the world. The tragedy of our times is that we do not know it.

EL: Any regrets?

Wilson: Yes. The Federal Reserve Act, which I signed, allowed our system of credit to become too concentrated. The growth of the nation and all our activities are in the hands of a few men who, even if their action be honest and intended for the public interest, are necessarily concentrated upon the great undertakings in which their own money is involved. We have restricted credit, we have restricted opportunity, we have controlled development, and we have come to be one of the worst ruled, controlled and dominated governments in the civilized world—a ­government run by the opinion of small groups of dominant men.

EL: What sustains you, then?

Wilson: I believe in Divine Providence. If I did not, I would go crazy.

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Sources: Indispensable, Gautam Mukunda, Harvard Business Review Press; GoodReads.com; Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum.

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