Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin On Leadership In Turbulent Times

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If you’re leading through complex times, you could do a lot worse than grabbing some how-to tips from Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and LBJ. Pulitzer-Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin shares some insights for directors who may not be fighting the Civil War or WWII, but still face their own leadership challenges.
"Leadership in Turbulent Times" is a new book from Doris Kearns Goodwin
“Leadership in Turbulent Times” is a new book from Doris Kearns Goodwin

You’re dealing with depression, World War II, or, you know, at the Civil War. And yet Lincoln actually went to the theater more than 100 times during the Civil War. He said that if he couldn’t go, somehow the anxieties would be so great they would kill him, even though he knew that people felt that he was strange to be going to so much theater. Teddy Roosevelt actually took in exercise two hours every afternoon in the White House, whether it was a boxing game, or a wrestling match, or hiking in Rock Creek Park. He always took people with him so they could talk, but still, it was exercising time. FDR had a cocktail party in the White House every night, where he refused to let anybody talk about the war. So for a few precious hours, he could forget the war that was raging.

Only LBJ was unable to unwind, and I think that was part of the problem. I remember when I was swimming with him at the ranch after the White House years when I was helping him on his memoirs, we’d go into the pool, but you could hardly swim because he had floating rafts with floating notepads, and the floating telephone, and floating messages so that you could work at every moment. So he would want go to the movies because it would mean three hours sitting in the dark.

A final question: In doing the book, what did your work lead you to think about our present moment?

Teddy Roosevelt went on a whistle-stop tour six weeks every spring and fall, even to the states that he lost as well as the states that he won to try and create a unified sense of where he wanted the country to go. They all had communication skills that really persuaded people to come together rather than fall apart. It shows you, I think, partly the absence of leadership in Washington today. Not even just in the White House, but in the Congress since we’ve had years of a lack of bipartisan leadership.

But it also reveals a deeper problem, which is the polarization in the country at large. One of the things that Teddy Roosevelt said was is the way democracy would founder would be if people in different sections, and different regions, and different classes felt that the other people were the other and that they didn’t feel a common sense of citizenry with them.

I guess when I look at how did we get through these times, it does give me a certain kind of reassurance from history that we ended up stronger than before because we did have not only the leaders but the citizens that bonded together with those leaders. And if we’ve done it before, problems created by man can be solved by man.

All the problems we see in our system, whether it’s the way we run our campaigns, whether it’s the financing, whether it’s the political structures that need change in the congressional districting, all of those things can be worked on as long as we recognize that we are in a situation in America now where our political system isn’t serving us in the way we would hope it would, in terms of bringing us together rather than exacerbating the polarization.

One funny story: I was talking to a CEO at one point. [He asked] how were [the presidents] able to get through their anxiety. So I told them FDR was the kind of person who just believed that, “As long as I’ve made a decision, as tough as it is, with the best information possible, in the time period I had to, I’m just gonna roll over and go to sleep. I’m not one of those carpet walkers that stays up at night wondering whether I’ve done the right thing.”

When Lincoln was worried about what he was doing, he would stay up all night writing a memo about some decision that may not have gone well, and figure it out what he had done wrong so that it wouldn’t happen again. FDR had this other way of falling to sleep. He’d imagined himself a young boy again at Hyde Park in a sled on the back of this hill, going down the sled, coming up over and over again like counting sled instead of sheep.

So I said to the CEO, I said, “So how do you fall asleep at night when things are tough?” And he said, “I take an Ambien.”

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