Leading up to Inauguration Day, my mind kept going back to an interview I did in late 2018 with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on her then-new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times.
We focused on the practical: What CEOs could learn from three of our most successful presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and FDR, about how they bucked up their teams, got smarter by welcoming dissenting ideas (Lincoln wasn’t the only one with a cabinet of rivals), dealt with frustrations—and ultimately kept their sanity and good humor.
But one part that stands out—at least today—was her response to my asking her about our era. She said:
“One of the things that Teddy Roosevelt said was the way democracy would founder would be if people in different sections, and different regions, and different classes felt that the other people were ‘the other’ and that they didn’t feel a common sense of citizenry with them.
“I guess when I look at how did we get through these times, it does give me a certain kind of reassurance from history that we ended up stronger than before because we did have not only the leaders but the citizens that bonded together with those leaders.
“And if we’ve done it before,” she said, “problems created by man can be solved by man.”
Not a bad thing to keep in mind, and something it seems Joe Biden has taken to heart. I hope we all do in the trying months ahead.
The other thing—a bit more amusing—that stands out was a story she told me about a CEO asking her how the great presidents dealt with anxiety.
“I told them FDR was the kind of person who just believed that ‘As long as I’ve made a decision, as tough as it is, with the best information possible, in the time period I had to, I’m just gonna roll over and go to sleep. I’m not one of those carpet walkers that stays up at night wondering whether I’ve done the right thing.’
“When Lincoln was worried about what he was doing, he would stay up all night writing a memo about some decision that may not have gone well and figure out what he had done wrong so that it wouldn’t happen again.
“So, I said to the CEO, ‘So how do you fall asleep at night when things are tough?’ And he said, ‘I take an Ambien.’”