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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin On Leadership In Turbulent Times

If you’re leading through complex times, you could do a lot worse than grabbing some how-to tips from Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and LBJ. Pulitzer-Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin shares some insights for CEOs who may not be fighting the Civil War or WWII, but still face their own leadership challenges.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin

If you’re leading through complex times, you could do a lot worse than grabbing some how-to tips from Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and LBJ. And that’s exactly what presidential historian and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin brings in her new book Leadership: In Turbulent Times.

I recently talked with Goodwin about the secrets of their success, and get some quick takeaways for CEOs who may not be fighting the Civil War or WWII, but still face their own leadership challenges. Edited for length and clarity:

Why this book now?

I’ve always been interested in leadership. So I chose the four leaders I knew the best, and they all led in turbulent times. That’s one of the big questions, does the opportunity when you’ve got a big challenge make for a greater chance for an historic leader, or is it the man who has to fit the times? The title has become more relevant than it was even when I started five years ago.

Did you find things that seemed to be core traits all of them shared?

Yes. For example, confidence in oneself is something that’s perhaps a temperamental trait. One would say that FDR was born with that optimism and that confidence in himself, and then, it gets shaped by being the center of his family’s life. Same, too, for Teddy Roosevelt. More complicated for Abraham Lincoln, but amazingly, he developed confidence from…school even when he’s only there for 12 months, [from being] beyond peer in terms of his reading, his understanding, his thoughtfulness.

I think Lincoln was born with empathy, he was upset about kids putting hot coals on turtles and told them so. Teddy Roosevelt specifically said when he went into public life, he wasn’t going in to make life better for other people. But then, somewhat through his broad experiences by going to tenement houses, being police commissioner, he developed what he called empathy or fellow feeling, and did decide that he wanted to do something larger with his ambition than simply have an adventure for himself.

I think they all shared the ability to build a team that was filled with strong-minded individuals that could argue with them and question their assumptions. Then, they were able to lead that team toward common goals, most dramatically illustrated by Lincoln bringing in a team of rivals that were more educated, more celebrated than he, but knowing that he needed them in order to enjoy their experience and bring them to the common mission of winning that war.

Creating a culture that inspires the best performance from their team, and that’s sharing credit with them, as Lincoln always did. Teddy Roosevelt gave a spirit of morale to his team as well, an interesting thing in contrast to today in terms of whether loyalty is the important thing when you put somebody on your team.

When Teddy Roosevelt first took office, [people] said to him, “You’re keeping McKinley’s whole cabinet? Well, they’re going to be different from you, they’re not going to be loyal to you.” And he said, “Loyalty is to the work, not to me. And if they’re loyal to their work, I’m going to keep them on. And if not, they’re going to go.”

What are some of the practical takeaways other leaders should look for in the book?

All of them have moments of anger or frustration. They found ways to vent that frustration. In Lincoln’s case, he wrote these famously hot letters to people when he’d get angry with them, and then, put them aside and never need to change because he would then cool down psychologically.

Roosevelt, and you find in his papers, just drafts of such letters saying all sorts of things, “I’m immeasurably distressed. You didn’t do what I asked you to do.” Then he puts it aside. Then in his papers when they’re opened in the 20th century, you see he never sent and never signed.

It makes you wonder how Lincoln would have dealt with Twitter.

I think he would not have used Twitter except when he had something positive to say because he knew enough to hold back those kind of emotions, you know? And what FDR did practically, when he would be writing first drafts, second drafts, third drafts of his various fireside chats, he would get all of his anger out in those drafts. Speech writers would listen to him as he would read aloud saying, you know, “This congressman who’s an isolationist is a traitor,” mention him by name. A young speechwriter came along and said, “Oh, my God, is he really going to say this?” And the older guy said, “Oh, just wait. Wait until he gets to the second draft, and that guy’s name will be gone by the third draft. It’ll all be sweetness and light and everything will be fine, but he gets it out of his system by reading it aloud.” So that’s one practical thing.

I think another one that’s so important for us today is everybody today in leadership feels they don’t have time to relax or replenish their energies or find time to think. In the cases of these people, obviously, their situations are much more complicated than most today.


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