How to be a Memorable Leader

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In a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, a group of Springfield Elementary students performed a tribute to the so-called “mediocre presidents.” The third on the list is Millard Fillmore.


There’s a running joke in historical circles about Millard Fillmore. The thirteenth president has been known as America’s most forgotten president for so long that Franklin Pierce is now America’s most forgotten president.

All jokes aside, Fillmore forgettable presidency is forgettable for good reason.

The Unfortunate Forgettable President

Upon the death of President Zachary Taylor in 1850, Millard Fillmore was thrust into the White House as the nation was tearing itself apart. Senator Henry Clay had crafted an omnibus bill – the Compromise of 1850 – as the growing nation continued to work around an actual solution to slavery, Fillmore inherited an administration that did not take a position on that bill. As president, though, Fillmore strongly supported the compromise.

A compromise is usually one in which all sides win, or all sides lose – think about whether you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person. Unfortunately for the new president, all sides were of the latter sort. Everyone focused on what they hated about the compromise and criticized Fillmore for supporting such a bill.

While Fillmore had some support from the South, most of his his party’s support – the Whigs – centered on the Northern State. As a result, Fillmore couldn’t even win the nomination of his party for the 1852 election. By the following election cycle, the new Republican party surpassed the Whigs as the viable alternative to the Democratic Party.


Memorable Moments

Fillmore’s forgettable legacy is definitely repeated by many leaders across different industries and trades. Every so often, though, leaders emerge that leave their memorable marks upon the world.

Nelson Mandela‘s legacy is tied to the end of legal apartheid in South Africa. But his lessons are even broader, as this Forbes article points out.

Abraham Lincoln‘s legacy is tied to the reunification of the United States and the end of slavery.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg – the “Notorious RBG” – forged a memorable legacy as a staunch defender of the rights of women, while at the same time maintaining a strong an oft-reported friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to use his training as a Christian minister to rouse up a diverse coalition to tilt popular opinion in the side of civil rights for Black Americans.

Oprah Winfrey‘s legacy, which is still being written as she continues displaying her excellent interviewing skills, is often referenced as an authentic and empathetic brand.

Andrew Carnegie earned his wealth as a ruthless steel tycoon. Later in his life, he rewrote the story of his life by becoming just as ruthless of a giver. His philanthropy funded public libraries, concert halls, and even a university that bears his name.

Henry Ford, despite his many personal flaws, revolutionized industries predating the Roaring Twenties. The assembly line forever changed the game for mass production, and provided an automobile to the average consumer. You can read more about his revolutionary contribution in our “Swimming with Sharks” article.

Steve Jobs‘ tenure at Apple from its founding to his death (with a brief interlude away from the company thrown in there) included dominance in more than one industry at a time.

The Tether

Unless some sort of unprecedented historical discovery happens, Millard Fillmore’s legacy will not go the way of the individuals listed above. His only memorable legacy is unfortunate the inverse – so famous for being forgettable that he’s no longer the most forgettable president.

It’s a laughing matter for historians. Luckily, we have other examples to follow.

What will be your memorable legacy? What will be your story?

To find out more, check out our first StoryCourse – People Are Brands.



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[…] a previous article, I referenced Franklin Pierce as the recipient of the new “least memorable president” […]

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