What Makes a Great President?

Rochelle Balkam
What makes someone a great President? Why are some Presidents judged as failures? This activity is designed to help students think about qualities of leadership, with an emphasis on the skills required to govern effectively in a democracy.

The goals of this activity are to help students:

1.Begin this activity by asking students to name "great leaders." Ask students to explain why they chose each
person, and keep a list of these "candidates for greatness" on the board. Next, ask the class to consider whether these leaders share certain characteristics. If so, what traits are common to them? In what ways do they differ?

2.Distribute handouts or other classroom materials designed to stimulate further student thinking about the qualities of leadership. Examples of these could include any of the following:
a.Biographical information sheets or articles on Presidents and other leaders and their achievements.
b.Detailed questionnaires allowing students to identify what they expect of a President, who they consider to have been the most important Presidents and why, and what they consider to be the characteristics of a successful President today.
c.A list of famous quotes about qualities of leadership (see box) or about selected Presidents for classroom discussion. Ask students to read them carefully. Provide information to students about authors of the quotes as needed.

3.Have the class discuss the following three sets of questions. It might be suitable to assign some questions as homework in preparation for further class discussion.

A. General Qualities
Considering all the leadership traits you have reviewed:
1.Which do you consider positive? Why?
2.Which do you consider are the most negative traits a leader can have? Why?
3.What relationships between leaders and their followers do you consider most desirable?
4.What relationships do you consider least desirable?
5.What do you consider the most important criteria for choosing a President of the United States?

B. Specific Leaders
Considering the "candidates for greatness" named earlier:
1.Which leaders have the most traits that you consider positive?
2.Do any possess traits that you consider negative?
3.What is the importance of intelligence as compared to character in making a leader great?
4.Are there patterns in the possession of traits by different types of leaders (e.g., recent leaders compared to leaders in the past, democratically elected leaders vs other kinds of leaders)?

C. Leadership in Everyday Life
1.Do you think you possess leadership traits?
2.Do you personally know people who have leadership traits you admire?
3.Do you think these traits can be acquired? If not, why? If so, how?

Rochelle Balkam teaches social studies at Ypsilanti High School, Ypsilanti, Michigan.