What I learned from listening to the Nixon tapes

I’ve been listening to the Nixon tapes available online lately.

I wasn’t yet born when he became the only U.S. president to ever resign from office following the Watergate scandal. But I’ve always taken a keen interest in Nixon because he was so brilliant and at the same time so morally lacking -- an extraordinary leader with equal faults and virtues for whom no simple verdict is possible. 

Many people who lived through his presidency remember him fondly.

They remember Nixon as being the president who extended the war in Vietnam but finally brought the troops home in 1973.

They remember him as the president who ended the military draft.

They remember him as being the guy who opened up diplomatic relations with China, ended the space race with the moon landing of Apollo 11 and enforced desegregation of Southern schools.

But most of us today remember him as the president whose administration tried to cover up clandestine and illegal spying on their political opponents.

Most of us today remember him as the president who had a secret taping system that recorded his conversations and phone calls in the Oval Office – the tapes that would later tie him to the burglaries at the Democratic party headquarters.

I’ve been listening to the Nixon tapes because I’m curious about what went wrong along the way.

How did the respected statesman with noble intentions veer off track and betray the trust of an entire country? 

The tapes are fascinating.

In addition to his staff and close advisors, a candid Nixon takes calls from Henry Kissinger, George Bush and Pierre Trudeau.

He regularly spoke to Billy Graham. 

In one of the more raw conversations after the Watergate story broke, Graham praises an embattled Nixon and says "I felt like slashing their throats," referring to the broadcast media covering the constitutional crisis.  

Most of the phone calls share a disturbing similarity: they all praise the president.

They praise him for a recent speech, for a new policy announcement, for his handling of a delicate situation, for his leadership and more.

Almost none of the people in his inner circle had the courage to push back on his ideas, identify possible pitfalls or point out potential landmines.

Of course, few people get more criticism than a sitting president. But Nixon surrounded himself with a culture of unilateral praise. He soaked up every compliment.

And even if he recognized that people weren’t always honest with him in their assessments, he didn’t push them in an effort to hear the truth. 

So here’s what I learned.

When doing work that matters, is is crucial to create a culture in which people aren’t afraid to tell the truth.

There is a point in every leader’s journey when they realize their legacy depends on listening to the opinions of those who hold different perspectives. The most successful leaders I know are intentional in listening more to those who offer different points of view. 

When you surround yourself with people who are too afraid of you or who are only interested in scratching your back, you will never hear the truth.

And without the truth as a guide post, it can be easy to fall victim to your own hubris.

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.