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Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

05 December, 2020 - 8 min read


I. Brief Summary

Doris Goodwin covers the story of four presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. The book is divided into three categories — ambition and early recognition of leadership ability; adversity and growth; and how they led during crises in their presidencies. Goodwin poses several questions early on to set the stage for the book. Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the leader shape the times? How can a leader infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into people's lives? What is the difference between power, title, and leadership? Is leadership possible without a purpose larger than personal ambition? These questions are worth exploring for anyone who is curious about leadership in turbulent times. The book was well balanced between the two republican and the two democrat presidents. She is a master storyteller and brings history to life. The narration for this book was spectacular and I highly recommend it.

II. Big Ideas

  • No single path carried them to the pinnacle of political leadership. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt were born to extraordinary privilege and wealth. Abraham Lincoln endured poverty. Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt experienced extraordinary health issues. And most of them faced depression from personal and public failures.
  • The commonality amongst all four was a driving ambition to serve for people. They each worked hard and persevered for the common mission to serve for the nation and its people.
  • Each president attributed a different set of skillset which led to different type of leadership. But they all relied on history and actions of the previous presidents.
  • They were all deep thinkers and master storytellers. They all worked on self-improvement by spending time on their hobbies and new interests. Multi-disciplinary approach to solving problems was not unusual. Inspiration was sourced from everywhere.
  • Both Abraham Lincoln & Theodore Roosevelt were all voracious readers except Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson had a bias for action and had the most bills passed. He was an ultimate legislator. Franklin Roosevelt also learned from being social and interacting with others. Experience was regarded as the best teacher. Both IQ and EQ were equally important in their learning process and making judgments.
  • Each had a setback and personal failure, but they all learned from their personal failures and came back strong.
  • They all took a pause from public life which led to learning from failures and emerging as re-energized to get back into political life.
  • Each president worked with a diverse set of cabinet members and understood Constitution inside and out. This is why each of them accomplished so much during their presidential terms.
  • Each era required a different set of leadership and each one of them provided the leadership that the country required. They were all self-aware of their own needs, but also the people around them. But when they made up their mind, there was no looking back. They acted with full force by relying on their convictions.
  • Politics generally has a bad reputation, but when the intentions are right, political leaders can make a huge impact. Abraham Lincoln passed Emancipation Proclamation. Theodore Roosevelt led progressive movement through Square Deal. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal initiative to rebuild the country during the Great Depression. Lyndon B Johnson passed Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

III. Quotes

  • The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. — Abigail Adams, mother of John Quincy Adams
  • No key is exactly the same; each has a different line of ridges amd notches along its blade. While there is neither a master key to leadership nor a common lock of historical circumstance, we can detect a certain family resemblance of leadership traits as we trace the alignment of leadership capacity within its historical context.
  • Lincoln's moral courage and convictions outweighed his ferocious ambition.
  • If they shoot up like a rocket they are apt to come down like sticks. — Theodore Roosevelt
  • Temperament is the great separator. A second-class intellect. But a first-class temperament.
  • All his life, Franklin learned more from listening than from reading in solitude.
  • Privilege can stunt ambition, just as the lack of privilege can fire ambition.
  • The way you get ahead in the world, you get close to those that are the heads of things. — Lyndon Johnson
  • Ambition is an uncomfortable companion. — Lyndon Johnson
  • To be more imaginative, to think of new approaches that we could take to stretch the boundaries or the limitations under which we operated, to be more effective. — Staff member of Lyndon Johnson
  • A five minute speech with fifteen minutes spent afterward is much more effective than a fifteen minute speech, no matter how inspiring, that leaves only five minutes for handshaking. — Lyndon Johnson
  • Why some people are able to extract wisdom from experience, and others are not?
  • The chance plays a master role in the fortunes of leaders is vividly illustrated by Lincoln's experience.
  • The art of communication is the lawyer's avenue to the public. The lawyer must not rely on rhetorical glibness or persuasiveness alone. What is well-spoken must be yoked to what is well-thought. And such thought is the product of great labor, “the drudgery of the law.” Without that labor, without that drudgery, the most eloquent words lack gravity and power. Even “extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated.” Indeed, “the leading rule of the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling is diligence. Leave nothing for tomorrow that be done to-day.” — Abraham Lincoln
  • Lincoln exercised the fragment of “if A then B. Why may not B?” to exercise logic. Each exercise of logic was a small drama of contention and persuasion, a kernel of full-blown argument and debate as yet enacted only in Lincoln's mind.
  • If we could first know “where” we are and “whither” we are tending, we could better judge “what” to do and “how” to do it. — Lincoln
  • A house divided itself cannot stand. — Lincoln
  • The more he (Theodore Roosevelt) read about Abraham Lincoln, the more he valued Lincoln's willingness to yield lesser issues for more important ones.
  • An African proverb: Speak softly and carry a big stick. — Theodore Roosevelt
  • The very operating method Franklin Roosevelt had devised from the beginning of his governorship—sending people out to inspect and retrieve information while simultaneously bringing in a stream of selected experts—sensitized him early on to the fact that something was fundamentally wrong.
  • It had been a tortuous ordeal to make up his mind, but he now felt confident that his lengthy decision-making process had yielded the right course and that the country would be ready and willing to follow him (Abraham Lincoln).
  • At a time when the spirits of the people were depleted and war fatigue was widespread, Lincoln had gotten a powerful second wind. Where others saw the apocalyptic demise of the founder's experiment, he saw the birth of a new freedom. This conviction of progress not only proved a correct reading of the temper of the times but was instrumental in shaping it.
  • Among the many ways of leadership, scholars have sought to identify two seemingly antithetical types—transactional, by more common, and transformational.
  • Victory has a thousand fathers.
  • No cosmic dramatist could possibly devise a better entrance for a new President or a new Dictator, or a new Messiah than that accorded to Franklin Roosevelt. — White House aide Robert Sherwood
  • Don't confuse what what people in Washington are saying for what people in the country are feeling. Go and see what's happening. See the end product of what we are doing. Talk to people; get the wind in your nose. — Franklin Roosevelt
  • The stories were remembered far longer than facts and figures.
  • Momentum is a not a mysterious mistress. It is controllable fact of political life that depends on nothing more exotic than preparation. — Lyndon Johnson
  • What convinces is conviction. You simply have to believe in the argument you are advancing. — Lyndon Johnson
  • The fame they craved, the recognition they sought, bears little resemblance to today's cult of celebrity.