Lessons in Presidential Leadership

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October 18, 2018 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: PoliticsFounding FathersLeadershipAbraham Lincoln

Lessons in Presidential Leadership

Trump’s fixation with Lincoln may seem ridiculous, but it is not necessarily unique. Every president is curious to measure themselves by history.


Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership: In Turbulent Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 496 pp., $29.99.

WHEN DONALD Trump sat down with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last July in Brussels on the margins of the most tempestuous NATO summit ever, he started off the conversation by asserting one point of historical trivia. Among Republicans, Trump bragged, he is a more popular leader than Abraham Lincoln. According to an official who was present, Merkel answered this odd—and dubious—claim with a typically deadpan response, saying she didn’t realize there were public opinion polls in the 1860s.


Trump’s fixation with Lincoln may seem ridiculous, but it is not necessarily unique. Every president is curious to measure themselves by history. But most try to learn from it. They study their White House predecessors for solace from the stresses of the moment, or to seek guidance for what to do. They stay in touch with those that are living, study books about others, and reach out to scholars to hear stories and learn lessons. For nearly a half-century—since she first worked as a White House Fellow for President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ)—Doris Kearns Goodwin has been one of those biographers presidents have sought for quiet counsel from the past. Yet one doubts she will be getting any invites from Trump.

As much as any historian writing today, Goodwin has shaped how we think about the presidency and how to judge Oval Office success. With vivid storytelling and a fine eye for character, she has always succeeded in bringing the past to life and making it relevant to the present. Her latest work, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, does so again by returning to the subjects of her award-winning books—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt (TR), Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and Johnson. Like any greatest hits collection, this book enables readers to revisit some old favorites as well as zoom out and appreciate a body of work. But more importantly, it allows one to think anew about these leaders and what made them distinct. It also is a sobering reminder of what we are missing today.

Goodwin doesn’t set out to say anything particularly new about these presidents, and readers of her earlier works will find many familiar stories and observations. In this way, the book is less about presidential history than it is about leadership—and the lessons, she argues, apply as much to the boardroom and the ballfield as they do to the White House.

In Shakespearean terms, some leaders are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. This applies to the presidents Goodwin focuses upon. She zeroes in on the question of what made these presidents who they were, tracing their origins to their rise to power and describing the crucibles that forged their leadership approach. She then shows how these were tested at critical turning points thrust upon them—such as civil wars, financial crises or fundamental social change. These are stories about the convergence of great men and moments—and the history they shaped.

ALTHOUGH THE four presidents come from very different places—the Roosevelts were scions of a wealthy New York family, while Lincoln and LBJ had hardscrabble upbringings on America’s frontier—they end up drawing similar lessons about how to deal with adversity. With lively biographical sketches, Goodwin provides an inside look into the ways 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 humiliations, had early dreams shattered and endured profound personal crises. Each had serious bouts with self-doubt and crippling depression. They all considered abandoning public life.

Lincoln had an austere prairie upbringing and a rough relationship with his father, and his early political struggles threw him into a spiral of melancholy so severe that his friends kept knives and scissors away from him out of fear he might harm himself. tr had a sickly childhood, bedridden with severe asthma, and as a young adult was shattered by the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day in 1884. FDR enjoyed the most charmed, carefree upbringing of the bunch, but suffered a devastating blow before his fortieth birthday, when polio paralyzed him forever. And LBJ endured a tense childhood household, early political defeats and a massive heart attack in 1955, just six months after he became senate majority leader, that forced him to reexamine the purpose of the power he so coveted.

These were defining struggles—the moments, as Goodwin quotes philosopher William James, that revealed the “real me”—and she examines how they propelled these leaders forward and influenced the way they managed the challenges of the White House. One is struck by the determination and grit each showed: Lincoln’s intense autodidacticism, in which he walked miles to get books; tr’s fearless energy; FDR’s single-minded determination to overcome his physical obstacle and LBJ’s frenetic, exhausting talent for retail politics. Instead of causing them to give up (or worse), these setbacks forced these leaders into the habits that would shape their Oval Office successes.

As Theodore Roosevelt observed, “if there is not the 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 vivid case studies to show four different types of leadership at work and to draw lessons for why they succeeded.

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

Such a typology of presidential leadership isn’t entirely unique—several years ago, the scholar Joseph Nye offered a similar assessment more focused on foreign policy—but it is a useful frame in which to see how these concepts operate in the real world. From each case, Goodwin distills specific leadership tips that could be applied more generally. When combined, this list of seventy lessons—such as “make a dramatic start,” “lead by example,” “set a deadline and drive full-bore to meet it,” “shield colleagues from blame,” “know when to hold back and when to move forward” or “be accessible”—can read like a compilation of Dale Carnegie bromides. And aside from a few pages on Vietnam, which grapple with the question of how LBJ could prove so triumphant on civil rights but be such a disaster in foreign policy, Goodwin does not address leadership failures. That’s too bad, because for leaders to be effective it is as important to understand how they get it wrong as well as right.

OF ALL the ingredients of success these presidents exemplified, four stand out as especially appropriate for American leadership right now: temperament, empathy, optimism and the power of narrative.

Although they had very different personalities—one would never confuse Lincoln’s contemplative demeanor with FDR’s easy charm or the restlessness of tr or LBJ—each president had an inspiring temperament. It wasn’t simply that they were (for the most part) likeable, but they enjoyed an uncommon ability to understand people and their needs. They built reliable and talented teams and could manage big personalities. They were curious and knew how to spark creativity. They governed during extraordinarily tumultuous times—such as civil war, economic depression and social unrest—but instead of adding to the churn, they sought to steady things and instill calm and confidence. While they all had healthy egos—no one can reach the White House without one—they understood the key to success was knowing when to put them aside and let others shine.

Empathy and optimism were essential components of their temperaments. When considering these presidents collectively, what really stands out is how each sought to make people's lives better; to lift the nation up when it needed it most and to create a more fair and just society. Lincoln and Johnson never forgot where they came from. Even the Roosevelts, who were always surrounded by privilege, had an extraordinary capacity to empathize for the plight of their fellow citizens (FDR admonished his aides not to confuse what people in Washington are saying with what people in the country are feeling). Despite the difficult times in which they led, each leader exuded optimism about the potential for the country to rise above its hardships to be, as Lincoln put it, “the last best hope of earth.” And they were optimistic that government could play a role in making that possible.

To do so, they all were masters of the power of narrative, and understood that it was not enough to win tactical battles over policy, but to tell a larger story. This went beyond simple anecdotes to make things more understandable or relatable, however important that may be. The genius of these leaders was how attuned they were to history by studying the presidents who came before them, and how they placed their decisions of the moment within the grand narrative of the American experiment. As Goodwin writes of Lincoln, they considered history as “understanding of how we came to be, the best vehicle for understanding who we are and where we are going.”