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How to Avoid Being a Placeholder

Of all the forgettable American presidencies of the 19th Century, Millard Fillmore may take the prize as most forgettable. As Anna Prior wrote in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, the thirteenth president’s name has come to represent mediocrity.

Zachary Taylor — his predecessor whose presidency was cut short because of illness — had a presidency that was marked with passivity. While Taylor was serving as a figurehead, Vice President Fillmore was busy filling government jobs with supporters from his home state of New York. Additionally, Fillmore presided over the Senate’s debates over the infamous Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, a controversial part of that compromise that expedited the return of escaped slaves to those who claimed ownership. Upon becoming president in July of that year, Fillmore dismissed Taylor’s cabinet and pushed Congress to pass the compromise.

Fillmore felt duty-bound to enforce it despite its damage to the popularity of both him and the Whig Party, which was torn between its Northern and Southern factions. In 1852, he sought the Whig nomination to a full term but was passed over by the Whigs in favor of war hero Winfield Scott.

As the Whig Party broke up after Fillmore’s presidency, many in his conservative wing joined the Know Nothings and formed the American Party, the anti-immigration party that reflected a growing nativist mood in the mid-nineteenth century. In his 1856 candidacy as the party’s nominee, Fillmore had little to say about immigration, focused instead on the preservation of the Union, and won only one state (Maryland) in the Electoral College. During the American Civil War, Fillmore denounced secession and agreed that the Union must be maintained by force if necessary, but he was critical of Abraham Lincoln’s war policies. After peace was restored, he supported the controversial Reconstruction policies of U.S. President Andrew Johnson.

While Fillmore’s time in office exceeded Taylor, whose term he was finishing, Fillmore’s presidency a placeholder one at best. Historians view his presidency as one that sat idly by as the issue of slavery continued to tear the country apart. His desire to not offend anyone over the issue was not the leadership the country needed at the time. While Fillmore’s foreign policy is praised by some as one that helped build the country’s foundation as a global power to be taken seriously, the growing domestic issues have enveloped his legacy.

Jokingly, some historians now say that Millard Fillmore has been known as the most forgettable president in American history for so long that now the most forgettable president in American history is Franklin Pierce.

The Tether.

There are times in the life of an organization where a leadership change happens without a succession plan. Those who are thrust into power are all of a sudden at a fork in the road.

  1. Am I finishing my predecessor’s plan?
  2. Am I tasked with taking the reigns to lead the organization in a new direction?
  3. Should I just play the middle man and let the factions of my organization fight it out?

The answers to the questions above is always “it depends.” You have to take the temperature of the conditions within the organization, the market, and the overall business environment.

Except for #3.

The answer to that question is always a hard “no.”

Otherwise, you can be sure that your time in leadership will be one like Fillmore’s — a placeholder.

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