Lessons in Life and Leadership in Turbulent Times from Doris Kearns Goodwin

By Andrew Hyman, Class of 2019

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Doris Kearns Goodwin has been contemplating leadership for a long time. On Wednesday, October 31, in a conversation moderated by David Axelrod and hosted by the Institute of Politics at Ida Noyes Hall, she spoke to a packed auditorium about some of the lessons she has learned. One of the most well-respected biographers in America today, the subjects she has chosen to write about have given her a unique perspective on what makes a good leader.

Perhaps best known for her biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, which highlighted his elevation of adversaries into the cabinet and served as the source material for the film Lincoln, Goodwin has also written about three other presidents who served during some of our nation’s most trying times: Teddy Roosevelt, during the progressive era and America’s emergence as a colonial power; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after the onset of the Great Depression and during the carnage of WWII; and Lyndon B. Johnson, who helped shepherd through the Civil Rights Act and deepened our involvement in Vietnam.

Goodwin’s new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, could be seen as a sort of epilogue to the biographies she’s written. Having studied the lives of her subjects intensely for years at a time - she joked that she spent longer writing about World War II than it took to fight - she wanted to reflect more. “I hadn’t had the chance to ask them what I wanted to ask them, and I didn’t want to leave them behind.” She liked the opportunity to consider them together, looking at where their ambition came from, when they first felt like leaders, and when they decided that politics would be their vocation. “In graduate school, we used to think about lots of big questions, and now I can do that again here,” Goodwin said.

In the course of the discussion, I found there were three major lessons drawn from the presidents she studied – important lessons applicable not just to politicians, but business people as well.

1.      Know you don’t know everything, and learn from your mistakes. Prompted to discuss the commonalities of these very different men, Goodwin noted that they all possessed a core of authentic empathy and humility. “I rose like a rocket and fell like a rocket,” a chastened Theodore Roosevelt reflected, after being ineffectual as a legislator. By understanding their own shortcomings, staying humble in the face of success, and maintaining empathy towards others, these presidents stayed connected to the people and learned from their mistakes, enabling them to serve as strong leaders during troubled times.

2.      Know what you need to stay resilient. It is easy to get wrapped up in whatever you’re trying to overcome and lose yourself, especially during stressful and challenging times. Yet it is precisely during these times that it’s important to take care of oneself, doing what’s necessary to stay sane and grounded. Lincoln went to the theater over a hundred times during his presidency; Teddy Roosevelt exercised two hours every day; and FDR, during WWII, held a cocktail party at the White House every night at which the only rule was “don’t talk about the war.” Stepping back and providing space to think and reflect away from their problems for a short time, they were better able to marshal necessary resources when the moment called for it.

3.      Build on your strengths. These presidents possessed powerful traits that helped support them throughout their careers: Lincoln used his beautiful mastery of language to try to reconcile a bloodily divided nation; Teddy Roosevelt’s fiery fighting spirit resonated during a time of class conflict and helped steel America’s resolve for reform; FDR connected with people through a resonant voice coming through radios and into peoples’ homes, making them feel he was speaking directly to them; and LBJ’s interpersonal skills helped him build strong relationships , and persuade Congress  to do the right thing by passing the Civil Rights Act, even though it may have created political and other difficulties.

Looking back on these individuals, we may think that these traits were part of their immutable set of characteristics. But these men cultivated their strengths and developed their skills. That process of honing and improving allowed them to step up when the times called for it, serving their country with their unique skills to solve the unique challenges they faced.

Photo courtesy of the Institute of Politics.   David Axelrod (left) and Doris Kearns Goodwin discuss leadership and life lessons from four of America’s presidents at Ida Noyes Hall on October 31

Photo courtesy of the Institute of Politics.

David Axelrod (left) and Doris Kearns Goodwin discuss leadership and life lessons from four of America’s presidents at Ida Noyes Hall on October 31