Book Review of Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Book Review of Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Cover Image of Leadership in Turbulent Times|Doris Kearns Goodwin

What Makes a Good Leader?

When I researched the national political climate for my first novel, Hattie’s Place (1906-1909), I found a great resource in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit:Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismThat’s one reason I was drawn to Goodwin’s recent publication of Leadership.

Plus, the topic of effective leadership has always fascinated me. I even wrote my doctoral dissertation on exemplary middle school principals. (I know. Boring! But you wouldn’t believe how much a good school, just like a good government, depends on a transformational leader.)

Goodwin’s case study of four presidents–Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson–delves into the question of what makes a good leader. Are they born or made? Do they shape the times? Can they infuse purpose and meaning into people’s lives? Can they be effective without a purpose larger than personal ambition?

Johnson’s Conduct of Viet Nam Tarnishes His Image

There’s no surprise in her selection of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt as subjects. All three rank among our greatest presidents. They are also three presidents on whom Kearns has researched and written upon extensively. (See Team of Rivals,  No Ordinary Times ).

The inclusion of Lyndon Johnson  was in Goodwin’s words “more problematic.” Goodwin worked with him as a White House fellow and then accompanied him to Texas to assist him with his memoirs. She asserts that Johnson’s conduct of the Viet Nam war continues to tarnish his legacy.  However, “his leadership in civil rights and his domestic vision in the Great Society will stand the test of time.” Thus, she chose Lyndon Johnson as the fourth president in her case studies.

Rise to Political Prominence

In Part I of the book, Goodwin introduces each man by tracing his respective rise to political prominence. Although vastly different in their personalities and life circumstances, each one held as a role model a president before him.

Lyndon Johnson, a protégé of Franklin Roosevelt, sought in his domestic agenda, which he referred to as the Great Society, to surpass the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt built his presidential ascent on that of Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt greatly admired Abraham Lincoln for his “patience and freedom from vindictiveness.” Lincoln looked to Washington, the father of the country, as a standard and bar.

Personal Upheavals

In Part II, Goodwin writes about the personal upheavals that each man faced, threatening to derail his prospects of leadership and even his will to go on. Lincoln suffered a blow to his personal reputation when he broke his engagement with Mary Todd, whom he later married. Coupled with a defeat in public office after he was unable to keep his word to his constituents, he plunged into a “near-suicidal depression.”

Theodore Roosevelt lost both his young wife and his mother on the same day. Polio struck  Franklin Roosevelt and left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Lyndon Johnson interpreted the loss of his election to the U.S. Senate as “a repudiation and judgment” by the people “of his deepest self.” A massive heart attack and the threat of death caused him to repurpose his life.

Scholars who have studied the development of leaders have situated resilience, the ability to sustain ambition in the face of frustration, at the heart of potential leadership growth.

Leadership Formed in the Crucible of Rupturing Life Events

For each of these men, great leadership was formed in the crucible of rupturing life events. Each emerged from personal crisis with greater focus and a determination to make a difference for the good of the country.

For Abraham Lincoln, the ability to give direction, purpose, and lasting inspiration to a war-torn nation is clearly seen in his implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation. Goodwin describes this effort as an ability to move from transactional to transformational leadership.

Transactional leaders operate pragmatically, They appeal to the self-interest of their followers, using quid pro quos, bargains, trades, and rewards to solicit support and influence the behavior of their followers.

Transformational leaders inspire followers to identify with something larger than themselves–the organization, the community, the region, the country–and finally to the more abstract identification with ideals of that country.

It was through this language of his leadership that a moral purpose and meaning was imprinted upon the protracted misery of the Civil War. So surely did Lincoln midwife this process of social transformation that we look back at the United States before and after him.

A New Vision of the Relationship Between Government and the People

For Theodore Roosevelt, the moment of great leadership came at the beginning of his presidency, with his handling of the Coal Strike of 1902. The strike was “emblematic of the widespread mood of rebellion among the laboring classes in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.”

Roosevelt’s intervention in the strike averted a national disaster. Through his Square Deal, he “created a new vision of the relationship between labor and capital, between government and the people.”

Character and Intelligence in Fraught Times

Franklin Roosevelt took office in the midst of the worst economic depression the country has ever known. A quarter of the population were unemployed, the banks were failing, and food lines became a reality in every city. Roosevelt moved with speed to counter the effects of the Great Depression through a series of initiatives to Congress referred to as the New Deal. In his first 100 days in office, he got fifteen major laws enacted. The legislation was organized around FDR’s priorities to get people back to work, protect their savings, provide relief for the sick and elderly, and revive agriculture and industry. Goodwin concludes:

Indeed, 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.

Use Government Powers to Benefit Others

The assassination of John Kennedy thrust Lyndon Johnson into the presidency. Johnson understood at once that

The times cried out for leadership. A nation stunned, shaken to its very heart had to be reassured that the government was not in a state of paralysis.

In the early morning hours following his swearing-in as president, Johnson outlined to a group of close advisors his plan to get Kennedy’s tax cut out of the Senate Finance Committee, to pass Kennedy’s civil rights bill, and then get a voting rights act passed.

A “master mechanic of the legislative process,” Johnson accomplished his initial goal and then began implementing his Great Society programs, based on his belief that government should use its powers to better the lives of others.

In a year and three-quarters, Lyndon Johnson accomplished everything he had set out to do. He passed tax reduction, civil rights, federal aid to education, Medicare, and voting rights.

Their Link to the People

Goodwin concludes that the most critical element of leadership that each of the presidents in the case studies possessed, is their link to the people. She quotes Lincoln:

With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it nothing can succeed.

Such leadership, Goodwin adds, “is a mirror in which the people see their collective reflection.”

The Reader Can Draw His/Her Own Comparisons

Leadership is a timely book that does not attempt to name names or make judgments about current conditions. Rather, it allows the reader to draw his/her own comparisons between the case studies in exemplary leadership and the performance of our contemporary political leaders. In so doing, she gives us all a lot to think about.












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