Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is a giant on the history and biography shelves, with books about the lives of some of the most iconic U.S. presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson. But her newest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” would be just as much at home in the leadership and management stacks. It’s a detailed, carefully curated look at not just who these presidents were or what they achieved, but how they led during times of upheaval.
Business guru Jim Collins and famed investor Warren Buffett wrote the blurbs featured on the back cover, the first hint that Goodwin is taking a very different approach to recounting these presidents' lives, and with a different audience in mind than mere history buffs. The author offers a case study for examining how each president led, complete with boldface instructions (“bring all stakeholders aboard;” “master the power of narrative”) intended to provide “an essential and accessible road map not only for aspiring and established leaders in every field but for all of us in our everyday lives,” as the book jacket describes.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Goodwin, who before becoming one of America's best known presidential historians worked as a White House fellow in Johnson's administration when she was 24, discussed lessons for business leaders, what she wishes President Trump could learn from Lincoln's “hot letters,” and why a candidate's leadership skills too often get overlooked. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
OnLeadership: How much is your book, which profiles the outstanding leadership skills of four of our greatest presidents, intended to be an implicit warning or reminder about the leadership of the country today?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think that’s really what I’m hoping it can do, which is to provide a standard for people to understand what authentic leadership is and how it works and how we’ve lived through turbulent times far worse than these. And somehow, we got through it. There is evidence there. There are facts. Even as difficult as it seems right now, it’s still not as intense as it was for Lincoln taking over when he becomes president. He’s not even sure he’ll live through those first days because it’s so horrible — what’s happening with a state seceding. Or FDR taking over when there’s long lines at the banks, a quarter of people are out of work and there’s starving people on the streets.
Lincoln said we have to keep reading about the [American] Revolution: “I want people to read about it as they read their Bible at night; I want people to remember the ideals we stand for and what we went through.” That’s what I’d really like to believe: History can provide that sense of where we were and how we did it so we don’t just fall into a deeper and deeper hole every day.
OL: Yet there was a leader in place during those times who was an extraordinary crisis manager or visionary. Many people do not see those skills in the current president. Are you suggesting that the leadership can come from elsewhere?
DKG: Yes. We were in the Depression with Herbert Hoover, and he didn’t have the temperament to get us through it. He was a good man in other ways but not fitted for that time. Similarly, [Lincoln's predecessor] Buchanan, who was at the bottom of historians’ list of the worst presidents until the most recent poll — evidently Trump was there. Even with JFK — I don’t think the civil rights bill would have gotten through [with him]. It took extraordinary wizardry for Lyndon Johnson to [do it]. If that bill had gotten stuck and the civil rights movement was moving toward more violence, who knows what would have happened. The answer is the citizens [eventually] chose a leader that was fitted for the times. Sometimes it may be chance, but it’s happened for us before.
OL: What prompted you to take this very different approach to writing about the presidency?
DKG: I partly went back to what I was interested in when I was really young. Questions about leadership were key in my PhD exams. I remember the excitement I felt, thinking about big questions about forms of government and how people reacted to them. I still love the question of where does ambition come from, and how much is born in you. And this question: Does the man make the times, or do the times make the man?
OL: And where do you come down on that?
DKG: Well, I think what happens is the times create an opportunity for a leader, especially for a leader to be a great leader, because crisis situations tend to mobilize countries that have big issues that have to be solved. But you have to be prepared and be ready. Hoover wasn’t. McKinley wasn’t. Buchanan wasn’t. And I’m not sure JFK would have been for civil rights. As Abigail Adams said, “Great necessities [call out] great virtues.” Leadership comes from that. But you have to have the temperament and strengths to use that time right.
OL: What do you think are most applicable leadership lessons from these presidents for business leaders today?
DKG: There's something as simple as how these guys were able to find ways to think. In our 24/7 world right now, it seems impossible for us to do. Lincoln went to the Soldiers’ Home for a whole summer, and he came up with how he could use military necessity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. FDR went on a fishing trip for 10 days right before World War II and comes up with the idea himself for the Lend-Lease program because he was away from the struggles of Washington. Teddy could exercise for two hours every afternoon — even in the middle of the presidency he found time — and we think we can’t. Energy needs to be replenished.
Then there are practical things like controlling negative emotions. I’ve talked about Lincoln’s “hot letters” — how he’d write all of this stuff down and then put it aside, hoping he’d never have to send it. It’s in this book, too. A CEO told me it had saved him because he had written an email to a subordinate who he’d thought had done something wrong. And then just at the last minute he thought of Lincoln’s hot letters, so he put it in his “save” folder rather than sending. He found out the next day the information was wrong.
OL: Trump has rekindled the debate over how business skills fit with the presidency. Where do you come down on that?
DKG: Leaders of a big corporation have had to deal with fights between shareholders and constituents. They’ve taken a leadership role more and more today on social issues; some business groups have been ahead of the politicians on gay rights and transgender rights and gun control. There’s the international leadership experience. The difference is Trump wasn’t leading a big [publicly traded corporation]. He was leading a branding of himself.
The sad thing about the 2016 election was political experience was considered a liability rather than a strength. That’s because Washington was broken. I think, rather than just looking at political experience, what we need to look at is leadership experience. That’s critical. What we’re seeing in this situation now is a lack of leadership experience, much less political experience. In the period right now it’s possible people now may go to outside leaders, and the key is: What kind of leaders have they been? That’s really my hope here — that by setting the standard of what really good leadership in difficult times looks like, you can judge.
OL: One thing that comes up as a trait for all the presidents you profile is empathy. How would you dissect Trump’s abilities when it comes to empathy?
DKG: Especially when you come from a privileged background, as [Trump] did and as Teddy Roosevelt did and as FDR did, then the important thing is to make sure to expose yourself to other ways of living. During the campaign [Trump] was able to reach people who felt like the system wasn’t working for them and made them feel that he was on their side.
The problem is there’s a difference between campaigning and governing. When you’re governing, the responsibility is to the country as a whole, not just to the people who supported you.
[Lincoln] was always conscious, until his last day, of how he was going to treat the defeated South. That's a kind of deeper empathy — not just being able to get a certain group of people who know you are speaking for them but, once you’re president, that you have that larger responsibility to understand the country as a whole and bring those people together.
OL: You write that each of these men were heroes for one who came after them. How important is it for presidents to study and look to their predecessors for lessons?
DKG: I think it’s really important. It’s such a small number of people who’ve been president, and they really can learn from the experiences of the others. When Teddy Roosevelt was in the middle of the coal strike, it’s no coincidence he was reading the 12 volumes [of Lincoln’s works]. It gave him solace and courage to think that Lincoln was facing a situation that might have been very different substantively but had the same problems of having to contend with forces on either side.
I wish [Trump] could learn from Lincoln’s “hot letters” and not issue those tweets in the middle of the night. Lincoln obviously felt those angry emotions, but he writes it all down in a letter and then puts it aside. Even though he could speak extemporaneously, [Lincoln] never wanted to because he knew that words mattered. He knew how to combat as well as anyone, but once he was president, he waited for prepared speeches.
On a personal note, how was it for you to you to return to the subject of Lyndon Johnson for the first time in a big way in this book?
It really meant a lot, actually. I went back to the ranch and actually was a consultant on “All the Way,” the movie and the play [about LBJ and the civil rights movement]. I hadn’t been in decades. It was a really emotional experience. Choosing him as one of the four was complicated because obviously the war in Vietnam has cut his legacy in two. But I figured that as a domestic leader, especially given we’ve had so little ability to work within Congress since then, and with the 50th anniversary of all his [domestic achievements], historians have been moving him up in the historian’s poll. It seemed like the right time to go back and let him have his due in domestic affairs.
Just on a personal level, I was writing the epilogue — because I was late, of course — this last spring, and it was when my husband was sick and before he was dying. [Editor’s note: Goodwin’s husband, Richard, was an aide and speechwriter for Johnson and the Kennedys who left the Johnson administration in 1965 over differences over the Vietnam War. He died in May.] It took on an extra dimensional note to do all that. It meant that my husband and I had lots of time to talk about Johnson because he, too, had come to terms with him . . . There was always an anger left in him toward what could have been. And then, when all these 50th anniversaries happened and we’d talked so much about it, he had come to terms with Johnson, too, which I was really glad about.