Leading the way: Presidential leadership

Historian David McCullough, right, with Barry Petersen, under the gaze of President Abraham Lincoln.
CBS News

(CBS News) LEADING THE WAY is what we expect of our presidents. How successful any individual president has actually BEEN is a matter of debate historically, as is the entire question of what constitutes great leadership in the first place. Our Sunday Morning Cover Story is reported now by Barry Petersen:

We laugh with them, we cry with them . . . and with Hollywood's help from movies like "The American President," we heap on them our greatest expectations.

As Michael J. Fox's character said in that film, the public is "so thirsty for it they will crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there is no water, they'll drink the sand."

Presidential leadership is Colorado College professor Thomas Cronin's specialty, and he is struck by America's perhaps too-perfect wish list for a president.

"It seems like an amalgam of wanting Mother Teresa, Mandela, Rambo, the Terminator and Spider-Man all wrapped into one," he said. "It's a pretty outlandish job description."

David McCullough has written extensively on our greatest presidents, among them, John Adams.

Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on his first night as president staying in what was then called the president's house, and some lines from that letter were carved into the mantelpiece of the State Dining Room of the White House, at the wish of Franklin Roosevelt: "May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof."

"I love that because you noticed he puts honest first, ahead of wise," said McCullough.

Why? "Because honesty is essential."

To McCullough, the great presidents shared a common set of qualities. "They had courage, and they had integrity, and they had patience, and they had determination."

Determination, like Teddy Roosevelt, who knew the Panama Canal would be good for American commerce and defense, helping American ships move from one ocean to the other -- and he got Americans to follow his vision.

"Unprecedented for us to do anything like that beyond our own borders [at] tremendous cost and a tremendous risk," said McCullough. "But He then participated in decisions, not just at the White House but by going to Panama to see things himself. First time a president left the country while in office."

And the best lead not only with actions, but with words.

One speech, like FDR's "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself," or Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall") could change history, said McCullough. "All superb speakers who delivered moving speeches. Speeches that lift us to want to attain higher achievement than we might believe we are capable of."

Like JFK's "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

"That's leadership," McCullough said.

John Kennedy's words launched David Gergen's career working for four presidents.

"I do believe that President Obama has to be the unifier-in-chief," he said.