That Doris Kearns Goodwin has written another triumph of presidential history should come as no surprise. That she also provides a captivating study of various leadership types gives the reader two books for the price of one. I received Leadership in Turbulent Times as a Christmas gift in December 2018, so I am, admittedly, late in offering my thoughts. Much has already been written about the book. However, my timing is rather fortuitous, and my usual delay in reading is paying off for once.
Yes, the world was plenty turbulent when the book arrived on shelves. Whether or not the author planned it that way I do not know. Issues like Brexit, the onset of global economic slowdown and its impact on markets, and the presidency of Donald Trump were just some of the factors underlying a pervasive global unease. That unease has grown exponentially in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, and reading this book ahead of what is expected to be a significant economic depression only highlights the book’s poignancy.
DKG – which I will use not only to save time but because, at least as far as geeks are concerned, the coolest ones can go by their initials – is one of our pre-eminent presidential historians. When people speak of good authors being in rare company, she is the rare company. In this book she examines the lives of four presidents with whom, because of her previous work, she is already intimately familiar: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. The first three she came to know from meticulous study, the last one she worked for. In addition to the history lesson, she uses the figures as archetypes of leadership: transformational leadership, crisis leadership, turnaround leadership, and visionary leadership, respectively.
[A guide for what might help us recover from our current turbulence.]
The author divides the book into four sections. The first examines each leader’s background and the early events that shaped them. The second focuses on the significant adversity each of them endured and how it became the foundation of their respective leadership abilities. The third section dissects a particular window of each presidency – the turbulent time – applicable to the type of leadership she feels they represent. Each section examines the presidents in chronological order. So, in the first section, the reader learns about Lincoln’s childhood, education, etc. T.R., F.D.R., and L.B.J. follow. Rinse, repeat.
Accuracy is not an issue for Goodwin. One does not become a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian by playing fast and loose with facts. From my personal perspective, she got Theodore Roosevelt right from top to bottom. I have been a T.R. fan since I first read Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex in 2005 and took my time enjoying the first and third installments of his trilogy thereafter. All this to say, if you are familiar with the histories of the presidents in the book, you are not likely to learn anything new. However, when she overlays the tenants of leadership styles, familiar material becomes richer and can feel like exploring new ground.
DKG focuses on particular windows of each presidency: The Emancipation Proclamation, the coal miners’ strike, passing New Deal legislation, and passing the Civil Rights Act. Going beyond providing historical account and analysis, she begins to overlay tenets of each leadership style and performs a deeper historical dive to show the outcome from having applied said principle.
For example, Goodwin begins her examination of F.D.R.’s Turnaround Leadership with the tenet: “Draw an immediate sharp line of demarcation between what has gone before and what is about to begin.” Anyone familiar with change management (which could be labeled “turnaround leadership”) recognizes this and its applicability to The Great Depression of the 1930s. Similar principles follow: restore confidence, generate a sense of shared purpose, etc.
However, at times, the blending of history and leadership training do not truly match. For example, while poring over L.B.J.’s push to pass civil rights legislation, Goodwin cites the precept of involving all stakeholders. L.B.J., being the legislative guru he was, did this almost better than anyone. But the principle applies to all styles of effective leadership. Rarely does a leader truly “go it alone.” Therefore, at times, DKG is explains more about what a particular president did rather than how it was singular to that specific leadership style.
[T.R.: Visionary Leader and Crisis Manager? (Source: Wikimedia)]
Another quibble is how the case studies almost pigeonhole their respective presidents. For example, the 1902 coal miners’ strike is only one vignette in the very colorful seven-and-a-half years Teddy was president. He was, for his time, quite visionary, almost as visionary as L.B.J. Roosevelt recognized the power of a large navy and how the Panama Canal would benefit the United States economically and militarily. Teddy, like Lyndon, knew how to apply force – and act a bit underhandedly – to see the necessary pieces fall into place in order that a vision
might become a reality. In a sense, each president – and any good president, really – can harness a school of leadership to fit the individual moments of their presidencies. Lincoln may have been transformational regarding emancipation, but he was visionary when it came to the importance of preserving the union and, once the war was over, forgiving and accepting rebel states rather than punishing them.
In her defense, Goodwin never claims that each president was capable of only one style of leadership, or that her case studies fully encapsulate an administration’s entirety. But she does not say otherwise either. In addition, she tends to paint each president with fewer warts than are warranted. Each of them had their more tyrannical moments – Lincoln and T.R. especially – and were known, at times inconvenient, to see the Constitution as a nuisance to tolerate rather than a guardrail.
[Posthumously breating a sigh of relief.]
Lastly, while each of the presidents and times serve the purpose of the book, I believe there is a missed opportunity to examine failed leadership during turbulent times. Indeed, failure often leads to more learning than success. For example, James Buchanan, long seen as the worst president in American history, (though that moniker is now in doubt thanks to the current White House occupant) and Herbert Hoover both applied an appalling example of leadership prior to Lincoln and F.D.R. respectively. It does not take a genius to know that the Head In the Sand style of leadership never works, but a juxtaposition might have provided good context.
Even if history and leadership are not your foremost interests, read this book. Goodwin’s prose is elegant, the stories rich, and her enthusiasm for the subject matter palpable. This is especially true in her coverage of Johnson, with whom she had a very close working relationship during his White House years and beyond. Each presidency and turbulent era it occupied will come alive and provide a deeper understanding of how they successively shaped America’s current course. It will also put today’s turbulent times in better context and shed light on the kind of leadership that will be necessary to once again right the ship on the other side of the storm.