Everywhere I go lately people stop to ask me: Are these the worst of times?
No, history reassures us.
Imagine Abraham Lincoln entering the White House with the country about to rupture into a civil war that would leave more than 600,000 dead. Theodore Roosevelt was thrust into office when conflict between the rich and the poor had grown so intense that talk of revolution filled the air. Franklin Roosevelt came to power when the Great Depression had paralyzed the economy and the spirit of the country. Lyndon Johnson took office in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination when a civil-rights bill was mired in Congress and racial issues seared the country.
Each situation cried out for leadership, and each of these four men was particularly fitted for the times, as I explore in my new book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times.
Although set apart in background, abilities and temperament, my guys—as I respectfully call Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and Johnson after living with them for so many decades—shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon adversity.
At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, all sought to heal divisions, to bring various parts of the country together, to summon the citizenry to a sense of common purpose. They were able to use their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.
Lincoln was a leader both merciful and merciless, confident and humble, patient and persistent—able to sustain our spirits and translate the meaning of the struggle into words of matchless force, clarity and beauty. Theodore Roosevelt’s spirited combativeness was perfectly suited to the task of mobilizing the country and the press to deal with voracious monopolies and Industrial Age inequities. Franklin Roosevelt’s confidence and infectious optimism restored the hope and earned the trust of the American people through both the Great Depression and World War II. And Lyndon Johnson’s Southern roots and legislative wizardry ideally fitted him for the great Civil Rights struggle that altered the face of the country.
Leadership is elusive because one size does not fit all. In my book, I have sought to make the concept of leadership less abstract and more practical through specific stories that can provide a guide and inspiration to show how—with ambition, self-reflection and perseverance—leadership skills can be developed and strengthened.
Through my study of leadership these past five years, I found a family resemblance of traits and patterns of behavior—among them humility, empathy, resilience, courage; the ability to replenish energy, listen to diverse opinions, control negative impulses, connect with all manner of people, communicate through stories and keep one’s word.
These are not simply stories of yesteryear. They remind us of what is needed today, as you’ll see in the videos I made with HISTORY, below. We have distilled the most important leadership traits and have provided examples of how and why they worked.
Without a shared political truth, a country has no direction. We must be able visualize ourselves with different leaders, with a different relationship to our government in order to take the actions we need to change our current situation. This is my biggest hope for all of us.
Below are six videos in which Goodwin discusses how these crucial leadership traits were brought to bear in times of national challenge:
The ability to identify with other points of view can be a breakthrough leadership trait for a president. Goodwin highlights how empathy impacted President Johnson’s role in shaping the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society.
Learning from difficult moments lies at the core of great leaders. Goodwin explores how resilience and the ability to persevere became essential leadership traits for Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
A leader’s ability to communicate can mean the difference between the status quo and greatness. Goodwin looks at how Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan lead a nation with their words.
Goodwin looks at how Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt grew as presidents from listening to people with views different than their own.
Sometimes knowing what not to say is as important as what a president says. Goodwin pinpoints moments in history when presidents bit their tongue—and were better for it.
From Franklin Roosevelt to Abraham Lincoln, America’s most iconic presidents knew that getting away from the White House could help them become better leaders. Goodwin explores the key to this presidential leadership trait.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN’s interest in leadership began more than half a century ago when she was a professor at Harvard University. Her experiences working for LBJ in the White House and later assisting him on his memoirs led to her bestselling Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She followed up with the Pulitzer Prize–winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. She earned the Lincoln Prize for the runaway bestseller Team of Rivals, the basis for Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film Lincoln, and the Carnegie Medal for The Bully Pulpit, the New York Times bestselling chronicle of the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Her latest book is Leadership: In Turbulent Times. Visit her at DorisKearnsGoodwin.com or @DorisKGoodwin
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.