Every few years, historians rank America’s past Presidents from best to worst. While scholars disagree on the place of certain Presidents, they’re united in their opinion that Warren G. Harding was one of the lousiest leaders ever to have occupied the White House. Despite holding office for less than three years, Harding left a legacy of scandal and corruption. What accounted for his dismal failure as a national leader? Insecurity.

Warren G. Harding was notoriously insecure, once privately remarking: “I am not fit for this office [of President] and should never have been here.” Owing to his need for approval, Harding spent his energy making friends rather than making progress. On the campaign trail Harding’s likeability proved advantageous, as he was elected with over 60% of the popular vote—the highest percentage ever won by a candidate at that time. Yet in the Oval Office, Harding’s preoccupation with popularity was debilitating. In his efforts not to let down any of his buddies, Harding ended up being perhaps the greatest Presidential disappointment in history.

How did Harding’s insecurity undermine his leadership?

1) He showed favoritism.

Instead of selecting advisers on the basis of their competence, Harding surrounded himself with fawning admirers to feed his personal need for affirmation. Putting his buddies in powerful government posts caused Harding one headache after another.

His Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, was the first member of a Presidential cabinet to be imprisoned. Fall had accepted bribes from oil companies in exchange for leasing them government lands at below-market rates.
His Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, had to step down in the wake of corruption charges.
His Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, was forced to resign after allegations of widespread corruption in the Department of Justice.
His Assistant Attorney General, Jess Smith, committed suicide after coming under investigation for fraud.
His Director of the Veterans’ Bureau, Charles Forbes, was convicted and imprisoned of defrauding the government.
Though Harding apparently did not engage in fraud himself, the rampant corruption surrounding him ruined his administration.

2) He avoided responsibility.

Instead of using his authority to confront his corrupt friends, Harding saw himself as a victim of their behavior. In his words, “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my d*** friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights.” In fact, some historians attribute Harding’s death [he died of congestive heart failure while in office] to the stress of dealing with scandals instigated by members of his inner circle.

President Harding’s evasion of responsibility would have come as no surprise to anyone following his political career. As a Senator, Harding had been noted for his absenteeism. Whenever a controversial bill camp up for a vote, he left Washington to avoid taking a side. Rather than making tough calls, Harding ran away from them. Later, as a candidate for President, Harding was content to let party bosses set the agenda for his campaign. He simply pursued the policies they put in front of him. Rather than articulate a clear vision for the country’s future, Harding parroted the vision of others.

3) He created a climate of suspicion.

President Harding was not untalented as a leader, nor was he completely without character. Future President Herbert Hoover, who worked for Harding, claimed that he never gave a promise that he did not keep. President Harding was also particularly adept at connecting with people, whether communicating to large groups or relating one-on-one.

However, in aiming to please people rather than to hold them accountable, Harding created a culture of suspicion. People were aware of misdealings throughout the administration, but they could not count on the President to deal with the corruption of his political allies. As long as an official was a friend of Harding’s, then he had the power to do whatever he wanted. When news of government corruption reached the public, the culture of suspicion extended nationwide, with citizens becoming distrustful of their elected leaders.

President Harding’s insecurity even seems to have influenced his wife, Florence. As First Lady, she kept a little red book in which she wrote the names of anyone who had offended her husband. Many of the names she inputted on account of imagined slights. If she perceived that someone had looked at the President the wrong way or had failed to greet him properly, then she assumed they were a political enemy.

Questions to Consider

Warren G. Harding’s failed leadership leaves us with the following lesson: You cannot successfully lead your team if you need your team to validate your self-worth.

Certainly anyone would rather be likeable than off-putting as a leader. However, at what point does a leader pursue popularity to his or her detriment? What warning signs may indicate that a leader has placed too much emphasis on being likeable?

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