Over the past five decades, Harvard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has devoted herself to chronicling the ups and downs of four exceptional American presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. “I have awakened with them in the morning and thought about them when I went to bed at night,” she writes in the opening to her latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times.
But when she decided five years ago to look at them through the exclusive lens of leadership, she felt as if she was meeting them anew. The result is individual portraits playing off the group’s collective canvas, revealing that each suffered through a devastating quarter-life or mid-life crisis before gaining their footing again and reaching the presidency. In that role, each faced obstacles that have a lot to teach us about leadership in government.
Leadership in Turbulent Times
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster, 496 pages
Lincoln exemplified transformational leadership with the Emancipation Proclamation. Theodore Roosevelt’s handling of the coal strike in 1902 was a masterful display of crisis management. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first hundred days, with its turnaround leadership, gave importance to that time frame even today for new governments. Lyndon Johnson–whose failure with the Vietnam War tarnished his legacy and makes him seem an outlier in this group–was a towering, visionary leader after the assassination of John Kennedy, pushing through the civil rights legislation his predecessor had been stalled on.
Lincoln had walked a fine line on the issue of emancipation. But in the summer of 1862, with the Civil War raging, Goodwin notes that he convened a special session of his cabinet “to reveal–not to debate–his preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.” He had been led to that moment by some standard, but important, leadership approaches. He acknowledged that the failed policies pursued so far had failed–the Union forces were stymied, Northern morale was at its nadir–and a change of direction was needed. He had gathered first-hand information to understand the situation. He was known for going to see people directly at their own homes or offices or, in this case, the troops in hospitals or trenches. He found time to reflect, spending time before the declaration at the Soldiers Home, a three-hundred-acre complex in the hills three miles north of Washington which served as his refuge.
He had exhausted all possibilities of compromise before turning to imposing unilateral executive power. He anticipated contending viewpoints in his cabinet. Indeed, although he signalled his intention when he read the proclamation, he welcomed reactions from those listening–people he knew well and whose comments he expected and planned for.
But he maintained full responsibility for the pivotal decision and later did his best to shield his colleagues from blame. He had assembled an unlikely cabinet– the “team of rivals”, as Goodwin neatly summed it up in a previous best-selling book. “They could trumpet self-serving ambitions, they could criticize Lincoln, mock him, irritate him, infuriate him, exacerbate the pressure upon him; everything would be tolerated so long as they pursued their jobs with passion and skill, so long as they were headed in the direction he had defined for them and presented a united front when it counted, as it surely did on September 22, 1862, when he issued his Emancipation Proclamation,” she writes. And amidst the pressure he tried to maintain balance, in particular–it’s sad to recall–by his visits to the theatre, surrendering his mind to what he said were “other channels of thought.”
When President William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, Theodore Roosevelt promised a steady and cautious hand when he took over, signalling apparent support for more conservative policies than his own progressive hallmark. But the next day he also declared a new political era was dawning.
In the fall of the next year, as cold weather approached, there was widespread panic with no settlement in the six-month coal strike at the pivotal Pennsylvania mines. Roosevelt had to first calculate the risks of getting involved. “Passivity ran counter to Roosevelt’s disposition as well as his conception of leadership,” Kearns notes, and so he began even in the early days of the strike to seek ways to intervene. He called for a report to get the facts on the table, which called for improved working conditions in the mines, but after asking his cabinet whether it should be made public, he took their advice not to, so he would seem uncommitted.
As the situation worsened, he assembled a crisis management team from both outside and inside his administration. He then called the union and corporate leaders in the industry to meet in his office, speaking for the public at the outset. The owners rejected his bid for a tribunal and Roosevelt took control of messaging in the press, including releasing a transcript of the meeting that was not flattering to the owners. He then quickened his pace with multiple strategies, including, when not much changed, contemplating military seizure of the mines. “Don’t hit unless you have to, but when you hit, hit hard,” says Goodwin. Trying to save face for the mine owners, he offered arbitration instead of seizure and won financier J. P. Morgan to his cause. That unlocked further movement, with the miners returning to work. Rather than taking credit, the president praised Morgan–a useful lesson in the era of Donald Trump.
“The Inauguration Day of Franklin Delano Roosevelt began in prayer and ended in action. His every word and deed communicated the clear vision that this day represented no mere changing of the guard from one party to another,” Goodwin said. Roosevelt tried to restore confidence, while still trying to strike the right balance between realism and optimism.
With banks failing, he sought a window of time, declaring a week-long banking holiday. In turn, he realized he had to get his message out through regular press conferences. His secretary recalls that he was “unusually nervous” before starting: “His hand was trembling, and he was wet with perspiration.” He also spoke to the nation in what would become regular fireside chats, telling his story plainly.
The next period was one of launching lasting reforms to address systemic problems–a turnaround. He was open to experimentation, designing new, flexible agencies to deal with problems. “Before Congress adjourned on its 100th day, 15 major pieces of legislation had been passed and signed into law. Billions of dollars were appropriated to undertake massive public works, provide direct work relief, ease mortgage distress, safeguard investors, guarantee bank deposits, ensure decent wages, provide collective bargaining, raise agricultural prices, generate public power,” she sums up.
The day after John F. Kennedy’s burial, Lyndon B. Johnson chose to make a dramatic start with a major speech to the nation from a joint session of Congress, rather than before television cameras in an empty Oval Office. He led with his strength–domestic policy–calling on his former colleagues to act on the former president’s blocked domestic agenda. And initially he simplified the agenda to two essential items: a civil rights bill designed to end segregation in the South and a tax cut intended to stimulate the economy.
Even for those, he established the most effective order of battle, putting civil rights first. Like Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, he used the power of narrative to make his case; he repeatedly told the story of his cook Zephyr Wright, a college-educated colored man, who, on their journey back home to Texas from the capital, was forced to urinate in the fields because there were no bathrooms he was allowed to use.
After he secured the civil rights bill and tax cut, Johnson set forth a compelling vision of the future–a Great Society–saying, “we have enough to do it all. We are the wealthiest nation in the world.” Fourteen task forces were set up, with the president telling the chairs he wanted them to set their sights “too high rather than too low.”
Transformation leadership, crisis management, turnaround leadership, visionary leadership: These four presidents offer lessons on each, and the book presents them well, with adept storytelling revolving around advice the author gleans from the leaders’ actions.