Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Does the leader make the times or do the times make the leader? Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely -- Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson (in civil rights) -- to show how they recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others. By looking back to their first entries into public life, we encounter them at a time when their paths were filled with confusion, fear, and hope. They all collided with dramatic reversals that disrupted their lives and threatened to shatter forever their ambitions. Nonetheless, they all emerged fitted to confront the contours and dilemmas of their times. No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.
Goodwin is a powerful researcher and historian. Although I have read much of Lincoln and his Civil War presidency, I still gleaned more from this book. Teddy Roosevelt meant nothing more to me than his caricature and San Juan Hill--whatever and wherever that was. Franklin Roosevelt was overly familiar, and yet, he too became more alive under Goodwin's hand. And Johnson!
I enjoyed the manner in which she broke up the telling of their stories, concentrating on youth, preparation for leadership, presidential leadership, and, for T. Roosevelt and Johnson, the aftermath of the limelight. As an example, I knew that (of course) Lincoln had authored the Emancipation Declaration, but not that it was written so far in advance of the issuance thereof or how much he used his cabinet as a sounding board prior to the final draft. I knew that F. Roosevelt had been undersecretary of the Navy, but no idea that he followed in his Uncle's footprints. Johnson has been forever linked with the sour taste of the war in Vietnam, and although I knew Johnson had his "Great Society," I was unaware of that this meant more to LBJ than pure political pragmatism.
The narrators hired by Simon & Schuster brought these four men to life!
An unusual choice to have readers assigned to particular presidents.
If my ear is right, Richard Thomas reads the chapters about Theodore Roosevelt and Beau Bridges reads the chapters about Lyndon Johnson.
Goodwin writes of Abraham Lincoln’s early foray into politics, “Lincoln revealed early on a quality that would characterize his leadership for the rest of his life – a willingness to acknowledge errors and learn from his mistakes. The pact Lincoln offered the people – the promise of unremitting labor in return for their support – was for him a covenant… From the start, the destiny he sought was no simple craving for individual fame and distinction; his ambitions were, first and always, linked with the people” (pg. 12). Even in defeat, Goodwin demonstrates how Lincoln set an example for leadership, writing, “Lincoln voiced a sentiment that would become a refrain in his troubled passage to middle age: ‘How hard – Oh how hard it is to die and leave one’s country no better than if one had never lived’” (pg. 105). Further describing setbacks, Goodwin writes, “There are points of likeness in the seminal disasters that befell both Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt in the early stages of their careers. Both crucibles were precipitated by a combination of intimate, personal crises and public repudiation that seemed to crush their core ambitions. Both swore off politics or at least paid lip service to deserting politics forever. Both suffered severe depressions. Healing change had to come from within while they waited for the historical kaleidoscope to turn” (pg. 130). Discussing the onset of FDR’s polio, Goodwin writes, “Franklin Roosevelt’s ordeal provides the most clear-cut paradigm of how a devastating crucible experience can, against all expectation and logic, lead to significant growth, intensified ambition, and enlarged gifts for leadership” (pg. 162). She writes of FDR’s leadership and frankness during the First 100 Days, “If ever an argument can be made for the conclusive importance of the character and intelligence of the leader in fraught times, at home and abroad, it will come to rest on the broad shoulders of Franklin Delano Roosevelt” (pg. 305). Goodwin credits “Johnson’s gargantuan ambition, driving temperament, and unique legislative experience” for his early Presidential successes (pg. 327). She does, however, discuss the paradox of his success at domestic policy and failings in foreign policy, specifically his handling of Vietnam. Writes Goodwin, “From the first day of his presidency, when engaging domestic affairs and civil rights, Johnson had a concrete vision of the goals he wanted to achieve and a clear strategy for how to rouse Congress and the people to attain those goals. By contrast, when he drew his countrymen into a ground war in Vietnam he was motivated less by a set of positive goals than by a powerful sense of what he wanted to avoid – failure, loss, and a humiliating defeat for himself and his country” (pg. 338-339).
Like much of Goodwin’s work, Leadership in Turbulent Times is primarily a synthesis of scholarship on the four presidents and theories of leadership, relying largely on the “great men doing great things” formula of writing history. That said, the work itself is highly readable with insights that both academics and non-academics may find useful, especially in applying the lessons Goodwin extracts from her subjects’ lives. Goodwin discusses Lincoln’s philosophy, writing, “He considered history, an understanding of how we came to be, the best vehicle for understanding who we are and where we are going” (pg. 368). Such a philosophy guides Goodwin’s focus in this work. This Easton Press edition is gorgeously leather-bound with gilt page edges and signed by the author. It makes a lovely gift for recent college or university graduates studying history.
My answer to both questions (with one caveat) is “Yes!”
Goodwin organizes her book around four presidents and their leadership during four crises: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Theodore Roosevelt and the coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt and his first one hundred days during the Great Depression, and Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. She takes each man in turn and explores three themes. Part I deals with their early days and how they recognized their own ambitions. Part II shows how they overcame significant early obstacles: crippling personal losses, physical and mental setbacks, and political defeats. Part III details how they met the challenges of their presidencies with specific leadership strategies based on their own gifts, personalities, and experiences.
Because I have considerable knowledge of Lincoln and the two Roosevelts, their sections in Parts I and II, felt like visiting old friends. Goodwin reminded me of much that I already knew and admired about these three men. Reading their stories was like eating comfort food—familiar with a touch of nostalgia. The outlier is Johnson. I lived through the Kennedy/Johnson era, so this time period doesn’t feel like “history” to me. I was on a campus torn apart by the Vietnam war and mourned the loss of student lives in clashes with state troopers. My feelings toward Johnson and his leadership during this period—even fifty years later—was mixed, to say the least. I knew a few details of Johnson’s early life and trials and had a vague notion of his contribution to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, but most of what Goodwin told me was new and interesting. It made me want to pick up her biography Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written. Mission accomplished.
In Part III of Leadership in Turbulent Times, Goodwin delves into the titular problems these four men met and overcame during their presidencies. She analyzes each man’s actions in meeting an external crisis step by step and labels each: Lincoln’s transformational leadership, Teddy Roosevelt’s crisis management, Franklin Roosevelt’s turnaround leadership, and Johnson’s visionary leadership. Here Goodwin falters just a bit. If she didn’t consciously realize it, she unconsciously acknowledged it. Teddy’s section is titled “crisis management” rather than “crisis leadership.”
The example of the coal mine strike she uses, although foundational to Teddy’s progressive agenda, did not rise to the level of exceptional leadership. He went on to accomplish much more significant change. In the coal crisis, Teddy displayed mastery of the kind of communication and management skills we hope all presidents (and marriage counselors) would bring to their positions. He brought two seemingly irreconcilable groups (labor and management) together to make the country better for ordinary people. He did a good job, but Lincoln and FDR faced greater obstacles with far more serious consequences in the case of failure.
Likewise Johnson’s challenge—on the surface—didn’t seem to rise to the level of “visionary leadership.” However, Goodwin changed my mind. She laid the foundation for Johnson’s personal transformation to civil rights champion in the earlier sections. Although she worked in the Johnson administration and helped him write his memoirs, Goodwin is honest about Johnson’s abject failure in prosecuting the Vietnam War. She chose to write about his early successes in domestic matters.
And what prodigious successes they were! It was fascinating to see how masterfully Johnson planned and executed his vision. He managed, in painstaking detail, his major legislative accomplishments in the wake of tragedy and the face of obdurate racist opposition in his own party. He skillfully used every parliamentary trick and personal tool in his box to influence, cajole, out maneuver, and sometimes bribe reluctant law makers. His accomplishments in passing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts—in concert with the sacrifices of the wide-spread, grass-roots, civil rights movements of the 1960’s—significantly and enduringly changed society for the better.
Goodwin wraps up her book with a short epilogue titled “Of Death and Remembrance” where she brings each man’s life to a close, exploring their thoughts on their enduring legacies. She says:
“While their personal stories came to very different ends, they were all looking beyond their own lives, hopeful that their achievements had shaped and enlarged the future. The fame they craved, the recognition they sought, bears little resemblance to today’s cult of celebrity. For these leaders, the final measure of their achievements would be realized by their admittance to an enduring place of communal memory.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both for its history and leadership lessons. I recommend it for both.
Note: I originally published this review on my website where there is additional information, including a video interview with the author.