Presidential Leadership Lessons | National interest


Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership: in times of turbulence (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 496 pages, $ 29.99.

WHEN DONALD Trump spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last July in Brussels on the sidelines of the most tumultuous NATO summit ever, he started the conversation by making a historic point. Among Republicans, Trump boasted of being a more popular leader than Abraham Lincoln. According to an official present, Merkel responded to this odd and dubious claim with a typically unemotional response, saying she was unaware that there were opinion polls in the 1860s.

Trump’s fixation with Lincoln may sound silly, but it’s not necessarily unique. Each president is curious to measure himself against history. But most try to learn from it. They study their predecessors in the White House to comfort themselves from the stress of the moment or to seek advice on what to do. They stay in touch with those who are alive, study books about others, and reach out to academics to hear stories and learn lessons. For nearly half a century – since she first worked as a member of the White House for President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) – Doris Kearns Goodwin has been one of those biographers that presidents have sought quiet advice from the past. Yet it is doubtful that she will receive invitations from Trump.

As much as any historian who writes today, Goodwin shaped our perception of the presidency and how we judge the success of the Oval Office. With a lively storytelling and a strong sense of character, she has always succeeded in bringing the past to life and making it relevant to the present. His latest work, Leadership: in times of turbulence, does it again by returning to the subjects of his award-winning books — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt (TR), Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and Johnson. Like any collection of hits, this book allows readers to revisit some old favorites as well as zoom out and enjoy a body of work. But more importantly, it helps rethink those leaders and what made them distinct. It’s also a sobering reminder of what we miss today.

Goodwin doesn’t intend to say anything particularly new about these presidents, and readers of his past work will find many familiar stories and observations. In this way, the book is less about presidential history and more about leadership – and the lessons, she argues, apply as much to the boardroom and the baseball field as they do to the White House.

In Shakespearean terms, some rulers are born great, some attain greatness, and some have greatness imposed on them. This applies to the presidents that Goodwin focuses on. It focuses on the question of what made these presidents what they were, tracing their origins to their rise to power and describing the crucibles that shaped their approach to leadership. She then shows how these have been tested at critical turning points imposed on them, such as civil wars, financial crises or fundamental social changes. These are stories about the coming together of great men and great moments – and the history they shaped.

ALTHOUGH THE Four Presidents come from very different places – the Roosevelts were descendants of a wealthy New York family, while Lincoln and LBJ had a tough upbringing on the U.S. border – they end up learning similar lessons in how to face adversity. With living biographies, Goodwin provides insight into how these leaders grew and learned, and how their approaches to leadership evolved. Each showed early signs of greatness, but none had it particularly easy. They suffered public humiliation, shattered their first dreams and endured deep personal crises. Each has had serious episodes of self-doubt and crippling depression. They have all considered giving up public life.

Lincoln had an austere prairie upbringing and a difficult relationship with his father, and his early political struggles plunged him into a spiral of melancholy so deep that his friends pushed away knives and scissors for fear he would get hurt. tr had a sickly childhood, bedridden with severe asthma, and as a young adult was shattered by the death of his wife and mother on the same day in 1884. FDR enjoyed the most charming and carefree upbringing group, but suffered a devastating blow before his fortieth birthday, when polio crippled him forever. And LBJ endured a tense childhood, early political defeats, and a massive heart attack in 1955, just six months after he became Senate Majority Leader, forcing him to reconsider the goal of power that ‘he coveted so much.

These were defining struggles – the moments, as Goodwin quotes the philosopher William James, that revealed the “real me” – and she examines how they propelled these leaders forward and influenced how they handled the challenges of society. White House. We are struck by the determination and courage that each has shown: the intense self-taught Lincoln, in which he traveled miles to obtain books; the fearless energy of tr; FDR’s stubborn determination to overcome his physical hurdle and LBJ’s frenzied and exhausting talent for retail politics. Instead of causing them to give up (or worse), these setbacks forced these leaders to adopt habits that would shape their success in the Oval Office.

As Theodore Roosevelt observed, “If there isn’t war, you don’t get the great general.” Therefore, the heart of Goodwin’s book is to show how these skills were put into practice during pivotal historical moments, using striking case studies to show four different types of leadership in the workplace and to learn lessons from the reasons. for which they succeeded.

Along with Lincoln, Goodwin describes the “transformational leadership” that led to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, arguing that “no episode more clearly reveals the unique chemistry between the particular configuration of leadership in its particular historical context.” With tr, we learn about his “crisis management” that helped resolve the Great Coal Strike of 1902, which is a fascinating case study of an episode most readers will long ago forget. FDR offers a case of a “turnaround” in the way it manages its first 100 days in power in 1933 and the birth of the New Deal. And LBJ’s bold approach to tax reform and particularly civil rights in the aftermath of the John Kennedy assassination offers a study of what Goodwin describes as “visionary leadership.”

Such a typology of presidential leadership is not entirely unique – several years ago, researcher Joseph Nye proposed a similar assessment more focused on foreign policy – but it is a useful framework for seeing how these concepts work. in the real world. From each case, Goodwin distils specific leadership advice that could be applied more generally. When combined, this list of seventy lessons, such as ‘get off to a spectacular start’, ‘lead by example’, ‘set a deadline and drive hard to meet it’, ‘protect colleagues from blame’ , “Knowing when to hold back and when to move forward” or “be approachable” – can read like a compilation of Dale Carnegie bromides. And aside from a few pages on Vietnam, which touch on the question of how LBJ could prove to be so triumphant over civil rights but be such a disaster in foreign policy, Goodwin doesn’t deal with leadership failures. This is a shame, because for leaders to be effective it is as important to understand how they are wrong as well.

OF ALL the ingredients for success exemplified by these presidents, four stand out as being particularly appropriate for American leadership at this time: temperament, empathy, optimism, and the power of storytelling.

Although they have very different personalities – one would never confuse Lincoln’s contemplative demeanor with the easy charm of FDR or the hustle and bustle of tr or LBJ – each president had an inspiring temperament. It wasn’t just that they were (for the most part) likeable, but they had a rare ability to understand people and their needs. They built reliable and talented teams and could handle great personalities. They were curious and knew how to stimulate creativity. They have ruled through extraordinarily tumultuous times – such as civil war, economic depression, and social unrest – but instead of increasing the churn rate, they have sought to stabilize things and build calm and confidence. While they all had healthy egos – no one can reach the White House without one – they understood that the key to success was knowing when to put them aside and let others shine.

Empathy and optimism were essential components of their temperament. When you look at these presidents collectively, what really stands out is how each has sought to improve people’s lives; to uplift the nation when it needed it most and to create a more just and just society. Lincoln and Johnson never forgot where they came from. Even the Roosevelts, who have always been surrounded by privilege, had an extraordinary ability to empathize with the plight of their fellow citizens (FDR urged his staff not to confuse what people in Washington say with what people say. country feel). Despite the difficult times they’ve been through, every leader exudes optimism about the country’s potential to overcome its hardships to be, as Lincoln said, “the last best hope on earth.” And they were optimistic that the government could play a role in making this possible.

To do this, they were all masters of the power of storytelling and understood that it wasn’t enough to win tactical battles against politics, but to tell a bigger story. It went beyond simple anecdotes to make things more understandable or relatable, important as they are. The genius of these leaders was how much they listened to history by studying the presidents who came before them and how they inscribed their decisions of the day into the grand narrative of the American experience. As Goodwin writes of Lincoln, they saw history as “the understanding of how we have become, the best way to understand who we are and where we are going.”


Kevin E. Boling

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