I’m in the middle of reading Amity Schlaes’ great biography of President Calvin Coolidge, and can’t help but thinking there are some great lessons that entrepreneurs and business owners can learn from the 30th President of the United States (who was also a vice president, Governor of Massachusetts and former state legislator and municipal official).
1. Run Lean.
“As for me, I am for economy,” Coolidge said shortly after taking the presidency and announcing a series of budget cuts. The government budget, however, was not the only place Coolidge kept a tight belt. Even as he rose to political prominence and became financially successful as a result of his law practice, the Coolidge family lived in a rental home at 19-21 Massasoit Street in Northampton, Massachusetts. As president, he closely watched and trimmed the “domestic” budget for things like housekeeping and food. As president, he was a budget hawk who worked to keep government as lean as possible (or, as lean as he could given the political situation). He focused on spending priorities in both his personal, professional and political life — and it was the key to his success.
2. Keep It Simple.
“And be brief; above all things, be brief,” then-Senate President Coolidge said in his opening address for the 1915 Massachusetts Senate. That address was remarkable for its brevity. As Schlaes writes, the very length of the speech “made his point.” The remarks “he delivered that day contained only forty-four words, powerful in their combination of form and message.” Coolidge was brief in more than just that speech. Brevity, efficiency and communicating clearly was the foundation of Coolidge’s management style. Unlike the flowery language and long speeches utilized by politicians before him, Coolidge spoke “artillery style.” He communicated his positions clearly on topics, such as one of his telegrams, which read, “League of Nations — topic closed. World Court: yes. Bonus: no. Help for disabled veterans: yes.”
He kept it simple. It enabled him to sell his policies, such as his state-of-the-art “scientific taxation” program. It also allowed him to flourish as resident (which he assumed from the vice presidency when President Warren G. Harding died) when most of the D.C. crowd expected him to fail.
3. Live Your Values.
Like his values or hate his values — Coolidge stuck closely to them. Whether it was sticking to the rule of law while the Boston unions committed violence, or remaining committed to his unprecedented program of tax cuts despite political pressure — Coolidge made clear his values and lived them. As I mentioned above, he not only preached “economy” and budgeting, he lived it. He briefly and clearly communicated these values so that everyone knew them — and then worked to ensure those values guided his administration.
4. Let Everyone Underestimate You — Then Win.
Coolidge was somewhat of an awkward-looking kid with a quiet voice. He was not accepted to the fraternities at Amherst College, and started out with poor grades. As a politician, people consistently expected him to fail, due to his quiet nature and his looks. He didn’t like playing the social circuit or living beyond his means simply for “show”. When President Harding died and Coolidge assumed the presidency, many expected him to fail. All along the way, however, Coolidge defied expectations and won. Whether becoming an accomplished orator at Amherst and one of its most famous alumni, to succeeding as an attorney, to staring down union strikers in Boston, to becoming a successful president — Coolidge didn’t let the doubters and haters get him down. He focused on his vision, lived his values, kept it simple, ran lean — and WON.