What We Can Learn From Jimmy Carter’s Legacy of Thoughtful Leadership

UPDATED: February 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: December 8, 2023
Jimmy Carter looking off into the distance thinking about his leadership style legacy

Whether you’re fresh out of school or have long been making the corporate rounds, honing your leadership skills can help you charter a quicker path to success.

For those seeking inspiration, look to the example of former president Jimmy Carter. While the now 99-year-old spent only one term in office (1977-1981), his legacy of thoughtful leadership and charitable endeavors post-presidency has helped position him as one of our most successful former presidents.

Here’s how Jimmy Carter’s democratic leadership style made an impact from day one, and how you can take a page from his remarkable legacy.

Emulate Jimmy Carter’s leadership style and be a breath of fresh air

When Carter was elected the 39th president of the United States, the Watergate scandal was still fresh on everyone’s minds.

“In 1976, Jimmy Carter was the presidential candidate least like Nixon,” says Robert Strong, professor of politics at Washington and Lee University and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “He was honest and told the truth. The nation was looking for something different, and it was a lucky match of background and circumstance.”

While pundits still debate Carter’s political decisions, the manner in which he conducted himself was admirable.

“During his presidency Jimmy Carter was a hard worker, took risks, and he encountered the occasional controversy in order to be a peacemaker and a resolver of problems,” Strong points out.

Chad Eaves, a communication expert and host of the Executive Communication Brief podcast, adds that Carter’s “intellect, charisma and core beliefs are beyond reproach.” 

Don’t give up—you may find success in your second act

After his reelection defeat, Carter founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit organization that advances human rights. He also works with Habitat for Humanity and was awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for finding peaceful solutions to international conflict.

“He didn’t change once he was out of office. But he was without the constant glare of national politics and the necessity of rhetorical image management that comes with the presidency,” Strong says. “He got a second look from the American public.”

Carter’s rising popularity and success post-presidency is an important lesson for those concerned that their current role is the only indicator of their legacy.

“Carter faltered at times but was able to stay focused on the outcomes and impacts he cared about, to such an extent to leave a legacy of positive charitable impact that speaks to the ideal of leaving the world better than we found it,” says Christina Rowe, global leadership and organizational development expert at The Collaborative LLC.

“President Carter demonstrated how a second act can be more impactful than an earlier ‘big’ act when you act in a way that people know and they trust you as a person,” Eaves adds.

Act as a moral guide for your organization

Carter is often seen as a moral leader, a torch leaders or executives can also carry.

“The most important piece of the role of leader or executive is that they are in alignment with the mutually agreed values or morals of the organization they represent,” Rowe says. 

“When executives fail to frame their organizations’ moral values, people in their organizations lack direction and confidence in how they should interact with one another, customers and other people,” Eaves notes, adding that the benefits of having a moral compass extend beyond the people in your organization. “People will know what to expect when working with you and your workforce.”

“Carter’s social consciousness was an extension of his career, not separate from it,” Strong says. 

It can often be a strategic decision for a business to support a cause they directly work on, or one that impacts their employees. It’s not only good for the community, but also the bottom line.

“The choice should reflect your values and philosophy,” Eaves says. “Be able to explain why you work with a charity. If you’re an avid mountain hiker but you support a dolphin rescue, that will likely create a disconnect with people.”

“Charity, goodwill and supporting others should always come from a place of authenticity,” Rowe says. “It may be in very public charitable cause settings, or it may be in less visible mentoring roles.”

When deciding what type of charitable organization to align your company with, consider your own personal shaping event—a pivotal event or time period that impacts you, your decisions and how you approach the world for the rest of your life.

“All of us have a shaping event that resonates for the rest of our lives,” Strong says. “For Carter it was civil rights. He had his father’s sense of hard work and his mother’s sense of justice.”

Jimmy Carter’s leadership secret: Avoid negative press 

So as a leader, how do you garner a positive image, similar to that of when Carter left office?

“Pause,” Rowe says. “Assume you are always representing your role as leader in every conversation and action.”

Eaves offers five tips to consider:

  1. Is the issue at hand relevant to achieving your and/or your organization’s desired outcome? If yes, continue the conversation while framing it in terms of that desired outcome.
  2. Is the audience relevant to your desired outcome? If not, respectfully extract yourself from the conversation. 
  3. Be mindful of your composure. Be engaging and not dismissive. Take notes as a tactic to gain time to think. 
  4. Know when to stop talking. Say what is needed to advance your desired outcome. 
  5. Have an exit strategy. Do not go into a conversation with no defined end. 

Final lessons from Jimmy Carter’s democratic leadership style

To achieve your leadership aspirations, Rowe recommends taking time to define what you bring to the table, what helps you have an open mind and how you recharge yourself.

“In your relationships with team members, ask yourself, ‘What do they need to be successful in this situation? How do I give that to them or help them find what they need?’” he says.

Take inspiration from Jimmy Carter’s own words. In this 1988 Harvard Business Review article, Carter spoke of the qualities that determine success in leadership: “The ability to work with other people, the capacity to expand one’s mind and one’s heart as years go by, and to see the broader dimensions of the future,” he said. “High moral and ethical standards are essential, and they don’t change from one job to another. Honesty, truthfulness, integrity, unselfishness—these are always there.”

Photo by Ken Hawkins / Alamy Stock Photo.

Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.