Leadership in Turbulent Times
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
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.