Leadership in Turbulent Times—Relevant Lessons for Today

Leadership in Turbulent Times

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Published 2018

Read Aug 2020

Doris Kearns Goodwin served in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and helped him write his memoirs after he left office, the latter while she was a professor at Harvard University.  Her experiences with him and extensive research led to publication of “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream”.  She later wrote “No Ordinary Time:  Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt:  The Home Front in World War II”“Team of Rivals”, a book about Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and presidency, and “The Bully Pulpit” about Theodore Roosevelt friendship with William Howard Taft.  Thus she had spent countless hours with the men highlighted in this book long before she began writing it.  She remarks in the foreword to this volume that she found much to learn about them through the “elusive theme of leadership”.   She also points out in the foreword that Lincoln’s model leader was George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt’s great hero was Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt molded his career on Theodore Roosevelt’s, and Lyndon Johnson considered Franklin Roosevelt his “political daddy”.  So these men become a “leadership family tree” of sorts.

Goodwin discusses each man in chronological order, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, in three sections:  Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership; Adversity and Growth; The Leader and the Time:  How they Led.  She uses a story-telling approach to her work and engages the reader deeply into the topic at hand for each person.  She shows how each man’s beginning and adversity shaped his leadership approach and his view of himself.  Each man’s leadership was shaped by the needs of the country at the time and the needs of the country impacted his particular leadership approach. This reader was particularly interested in how Johnson engaged Congress which enabled him to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a number of other sweeping bills.  He knew that without involving stakeholders early and often and without close interaction with Congress he wouldn’t get things done.   These approaches haven’t been very visible in recent years.

Goodwin switches the order in the Epilogue:  Of Death and Remembrance starting with Lyndon Johnson, with whom she had a deep relationship forged during his administration and especially while writing his memoirs.  She appropriately calls out the failings of his leadership with respect to the Vietnam War and recounts Johnson’s ruminations of these during his post-presidency period.  She recounts his last public appearance.   “The plight of being “Black in a White society,” he argued, remained the chief unaddressed problem of our nation.   “Until we address unequal history, we cannot overcome unequal opportunity. “ Until blacks “stand on level and equal group,” we cannot rest.  It must be our goal “to assure that all Americans play by the same rules and all Americans play against the same odds.”  Unfortunately the gains in civil rights he personally drove through Congress from the White House, while enabling enormous progress, have stalled and the goal he delineates remains incomplete.

Goodwin does not provide a formula for leadership.  However, her final statements in the book sheds light on the essence of what the nation needs in these current extremely turbulent times:  “ Kindness, empathy, humor, humility, passion, and ambition all marked him [Lincoln] from the start.  But he [Lincoln] grew, and continued to grow, into a leader who became so powerfully fused with the problems tearing his country apart that his desire to lead and his need to serve coalesced into a single indomitable force.  [Italics added by this writer] That force has not only enriched subsequent leaders but has provided our people with a moral compass to guide us.  Such leadership offers us humanity, purpose, and wisdom, not in turbulent times alone, but also in our everyday lives.”

This is a useful book for learning how four presidential leaders developed into leaders and provides models for leaders moving forward.  This reader hopes those seeking political office read these words and incorporate these lessons into their own work to serve.

We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters–a Slim Powerful volume from Cokie Roberts

We Are Our Mother’s Daughters

By Cokie Roberts

Published 1998

Read Sept 2020

This reader found a copy of the 1998 edition of this small book in a Little Library—a great place to find reading treasures.  Apparently there is a second edition published in 2009 that my comments can’t cover.

This reader has listened to NPR for about 30 years so Cokie’s contributions to radio news and those of the other “Founding Mothers” of NPR are well known to this reader.  This reader is also familiar with Cokie’s participation on This Week with David Brinkley and her turn at the helm of that vehicle with Sam Donaldson.  It is somewhat sobering to this reader that this generation of news reporters in these vehicles, whom this reader has followed for 30+ years, is leaving us to retirement or beyond.   We lost Cokie to complications of cancer in 2019.

Cokie’s book is a highly personal one—chapters on her personal experiences as Sister, Aunt, Friend, Reporter, Wife, and Mother/Daughter give us an insight on her personal life.  She was a daughter of politician parents—Congressman Hale Boggs and Congresswoman Lindy Boggs;  a sister of a Princeton, NJ mayor (Barbara)  and of a successful lawyer/lobbyist (Tommy).  She was wife and eventual column co-author of journalist Steve Roberts and mother of two children.  She describes her pursuit of Steve Roberts during and following graduation from Wellesley College in 1964 when she had a goal of marriage and motherhood before she was too old (they married when she was 22 and he 23).  She describes her decisions over the years to follow Steve to New York, Greece, LA, and then Washington, D.C.  Through it all she realized she too must work to be complete and did so with gusto so that she become a the well-known and well-respected journalist.

Cokie also chose to include chapters or chapter portions about famous and not-so-famous women and how they made inroads into “men’s world jobs” of mechanic, activist, journalist, enterpriser, and politician.  She indicates she does not provide any original research about women in history.

This book is Cokie’s take on that age-old question “What is woman’s place” and how she sees it.  She offers no answers to how can women have ‘balance” (she in fact suggests that’s really never going to happen).  She offers observations on how she has experienced life during the “great social movement” that propelled women more completely into life outside the home.  She chastens women with choices in their life-role for judging other women’s choices — especially when those judged really have very limited choices.

The best paragraph in the book quotes Margaret Chase Smith as she wrote in the introduction to the book “Outstanding Women Members of Congress” in answer to “Where is the proper place of women?”:  “My answer is short and simple—woman’s proper place is everywhere.  Individually it is where the particular woman is happiest and best fitted—in the home as wives and mothers; in organized civic, business, and professional groups; in industry and business, both management and labor; and in government and politics. Generally, if there is any proper place for women today it is that of alert and responsible citizens in the fullest sense of the word.”

If you were a fan of Cokie Roberts, you will enjoy this small volume, hearing Cokie’s voice again as she covers topics important to the hearts of women of all ages.  If Cokie Roberts is less known to you, read this book to get a sense of a memorable woman who brought much to the world of political journalism and to all those who knew her.


Girls Burn Brighter

Girls Burn Brighter

By Shobha Rao

Published 2018

Read Aug 2020

This premier novel from Rao, born in India but migrated to the US at age 7, depicts the story of two girls’ struggle to retain their “brighter” selves despite relentless abuse they suffer. Poornima’s mother has died of cancer and her father’s alcoholism keeps the family struggling to eat.  He uses a marriage broker to seek a husband for Poornima but his meager estate makes this difficult.  Savitha’s family is even poorer, living on and picking through the local trash heap.  Savitha ends up working for Poornima’s father’s weaving business and the two girls kindle a friendship that helps them continue to “burn brighter” despite the obstacles they encounter.   The novel alternates between the stories of the two girls. The two girls end up in “thrown away” situations for different reasons which won’t be revealed here and are separated. 

This reader listened to the novel.  The reader was generally breathless, except in dialog sections. This reading style became somewhat annoying to this reader.  The non-dialog prose may have prompted this approach as it was sometimes nearly over the edge as it describes the relentless abuse the girls suffer and the girls’ struggle to keep their “light burning” while on their quests.  Poornima’s  quest was to find Savitha.   Savitha’s quest was to escape her appalling slave-life situation.  Her quest also seems pretty hopeless. 

Despite the near implausibility of their quests and an editing issue with respect to timing, the book was engaging. This reader knew that the “finder” at the nearby train station they both encounter at different times was leading them to a human trafficking situation which turned out to be true.  But this reader certainly hoped their quests would be fulfilled despite the odds.  The book paints a very bleak picture of life for Indian girls growing up in this kind of village in this region—having no worth except to have babies (boy babies) and serve the husband’s family.  When this path can’t be achieved, the options are bleak at best.    Unfortunately, this situation is not limited to poor Indian villages but remains true for many women in many cultures throughout the world and even within certain cultural situations in the United States.  This was a sobering book to read during the summer of the 100th anniversary of women achieving the right to vote in the United States.  Clearly the struggle for basic rights for women remains incomplete.