The Poor Missouri Farmer Didn’t Go to College, but Still Became a Great Leader

by Greg Prestemon

Harry Truman couldn’t sign his name, “Harry Truman, MBA.”

Or, “Harry Truman, JD.”

He didn’t have a row of degrees nailed to the wall behind his desk.

In fact, Harry Truman was our last President without any college degree. As a young man he attended Spalding’s Commercial College, a local Kansas City business school, before dropping out after a year. Later—when he was nearly 40—Truman attended law school for two years at night at the Kansas City Law School, before again dropping out.

Between his short-lived stints of higher education, Truman was a farmer and ran a men’s clothing store.

His political career began when he ran for local office in Kansas City. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1934, and ten years later he was nominated to serve as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third Vice President on the 1944 Democratic ticket.

Give ‘Em Hell Harry then became President in 1945, shortly after Roosevelt’s death.

Though Truman had a challenging time in the White House and left with low approval ratings, history remembers him well. Historians typically rank him as one of the country’s ten best Presidents, and subsequent Presidents from both parties have frequently praised his time in office.

Not bad for someone with a high school diploma and a smattering of college courses.

Harry Truman proved that great leadership isn’t just about having the right credentials.

(Another way to illustrate that: Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton have five degrees, combined.)

Don’t get me wrong: Education is important—and we are lucky to have some really great colleges in this region.

But we live in a stratified society. Those who have a degree, the people who typically don’t go home with sweat around their collar and dirt under their fingernails, are the ones we consider decision makers and influencers. They are the ones we look to for advice and expertise.

I can honestly say I’ve been guilty of making that assumption, and this year I’m trying to change the way I look at the world. I’m trying to do a better job of actually seeing the person in front of me, regardless of what they do for living.

And I can also honestly say I should have been better at this all along. In my time serving as President and CEO of the EDC Business and Community Partners, I’ve met hundreds of entrepreneurs in our county. I’ve learned that while a degree can make a difference, it is far from being the greatest predictor of entrepreneurial success.

Unless you’re opening a law office, ambition, ingenuity, dedication, and emotional intelligence all matter way more than a diploma.

Without those qualities, you can have all the degrees in the world and still not succeed.

The reason I think about this, and why I have written about it lately, is because our society faces enormous challenges right now. Automation and artificial intelligence are reordering our economy and will create a very different job market. We have stagnation in politics, and on a human level, we just don’t get along all that well anymore.

We need ideas and solutions to solve these problems and make tomorrow better. Those ideas might come from a PhD—or they might come from your mechanic. Albert Einstein was, after all, a patent clerk when he started explaining the way the universe actually worked.

And Harry Truman was a two-time college dropout selling men’s clothing when he started down the path to the Presidency.

I firmly believe we can solve the challenges ahead of us.

But it’s going to take everyone contributing, regardless of whether you spend all day with your hands on a keyboard or beneath the hood of a car.

Education is important—but not just the education you get in a classroom. I bet that a coffee barista who interacts with hundreds of people every day can provide insight into human nature that even the best sociologist doesn’t have.

So let’s move past the idea that only the credentialed have something to contribute and realize that creating the economy and the society of the future is going to take all of us.

(Plus, if things get really bad, my skills as an economic developer will be of limited use in the zombie apocalypse. But the butchers or the mechanics? We’ll really need them.)

Greg Prestemon is President and CEO of the St. Charles County EDC Business and Community Partners.