If ever there was a moment for a book like this it is now. In Leadership: In TurbulentTimes, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about how four U.S. Presidents: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, led the nation through some of its greatest challenges. While she doesn’t go there, the contrast with our current president is obvious.
The difference is that the turbulence faced by the four presidents came with their difficult ‘times’ or context, while in our times the president himself is contributing to, if not causing, the turbulence.
I thought about leaders I’ve observed in various walks of life who have led through hard times and those who have led into trouble. I have lived long enough to have seen many of both.
Having written biographies of presidents Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin returns to each of them as case studies on leadership in troubled times. She is best known for her book Team of Rivals, the basis for Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film Lincoln.
Her theme is twofold: given the obstacles they faced in their early years, few, if any, who knew them thought they would excel as national leaders let alone presidents.
In his 30s, Lincoln, a self-educated frontiersman was so severely depressed that some of his associates thought he should be institutionalized. FDR was disabled by polio. When a young man Teddy Roosevelt’s mother and wife died on the same day leaving him with a daughter he all but abandoned. Lyndon Johnson was emotionally immobilized by his early election defeats.
And yet they overcame and succeeded as presidents leading the nation through dark, troubled days: the Civil War, the Great Depression, the monopolies of the Robber Barons and the racist legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Goodwin describes how their distinctive leadership traits emerged.
- Lincoln as a Transformational Leader issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Teddy Roosevelt for his Crisis Management during the 1901 national coal strike.
- Franklin Roosevelt for Turnaround Leadership in his first 100 Days during the Great Depression.
- Lyndon Johnson’s Visionary Leadership guiding Civil Rights legislation through Congress.
There are two lessons, or questions here for leaders, if not for everyone.
First, how have we dealt with disappointments, weakness, failures, heartbreak, and disadvantage? All of us have had some of them. It is the human situation. The four presidents had more than their share.
Second, how have we dealt with external threats? Sooner or later the times will bring unavoidable difficulties. It is human history. The leadership role, as demonstrated by the four presidents, is to guide us through turbulence to better times.