Review: Lessons from the Presidents

Written on 2019-12-23

“Leadership – Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times” is the magnum opus of US presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is hands-down the best book I read this year, and quite possibly the most inspiring book on leadership I have ever read. But let's start at the beginning.

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Goodwin has spent much of her adult life studying and writing about US presidents. As a young woman, she worked for Lyndon B. Johnson; and later went on to write a half-dozen presidential biographies. Now in her seventies, she decided to take a step back and have a fresh look at the men she'd studied, this time with one specific focus—leadership. She writes:

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 times? [...] Is leadership possible without a purpose larger than personal ambition? How fondly I remember long and heated sessions over just such questions with my graduate school friends, arguing through the night with a fervor surpassing our level of knowledge.

Revisiting these questions five decades later, what she doesn't produce is a dry, academic treatise on the historic principles of leadership. Instead, she tells the story of four presidents, letting their lives and not her words show what made them great leaders. The result is a joint biography of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson; a biography that doesn't just tell the story of the men and their times, but of great leaders and how they led.

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Goodwin structures her book in three sections, with a chapter on each president in each section. The first section is their early life: how and where they spent their childhood, their character development as young men, and the circumstances that first brought them into politics. The second section is all about adversity: how each man experienced a deep crisis in his life and the effect this had on his career, his character, and his leadership. The third section sees them take the White House, facing challenges that threaten an entire nation. “There”, as Goodwin writes, “at their formidable best, when guided by a sense of moral purpose, they were able to channel their ambitions and summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.

It is no accident that Goodwin chose these four. Aside from the fact that they are the presidents she has studied most thoroughly, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts are known as perhaps the greatest presidents the United States have had. Johnson makes an interesting addition, his legacy and memory scarred by his administration's handling of the Vietnam war. However, he nonetheless deserves great respect for the wide-reaching civil rights legislation he implemented. Also, his somewhat more problematic character (which Goodwin can write about from first-hand experience) makes a thought-provoking narrative counter-point to the almost saintly Lincoln.

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For me personally, the book came with perfect timing. I had been wanting to read more about American history for some time, I value good biographies, and I was on the lookout for a fresh book on leadership. Goodwin's presidents covered all bases admirably.

Her writing is delightful to read and she gives one a good feel for the atmosphere of the times she is describing. Switching between the presidents (and the decades) between chapters can be a bit confusing, but also provides an illuminating birds-eye perspective of the broad sweep of American history. She keeps up a good pace throughout her stories, but not at the expense of relevant detail. Her characterisation of her subjects is warm and personal and up-close; making the reader feel as if one has really gotten to know these men, how they thought, felt, and acted. Lastly, her commentary on their leadership never feels imposed or forced. She doesn't use their lives as plump illustrations of her ideas, rather, her comments serve to delicately accentuate the principles they lived.

Quite frankly, I found her book inspiring. But what did it teach me?

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Although the book holds many lessons, the three overarching principles it drives home with force are the importance of character, teamwork, and communication.

Indeed, character is what Goodwin focuses on the most. Time and again she emphasises how these presidents combined fierce ambition with a deep-seated desire to truly help others. Surprisingly, they were humble men—not slinkingly 'umble as Uriah Heep, but humble in the sense that they really cared about the person opposite them. Almost paradoxically, it was this humility that drove them on, that made them want to make things better for people around them, and that made people around them trust them enough to give them ever more responsibility and power. They were, in fact, servant leaders.

The greatest example for this (thoroughly biblical) principle is Lincoln. Goodwin remarks of him: “He never allowed his ambition to consume his kindheartedness.” Although he dreamt of greatness from an early age, he was always a compassionate and patient man. A key trait of his personality was that he had a kind eye for those ranked lower than him. As a lawyer, he would talk with even the youngest clerk; as a president, he visited his soldiers in their camps and kept the White House door open for them. He knew that personal was not the same as important. When the Civil War broke out shortly before his inauguration, he assembled a cabinet of the most capable men in the Union—which happened to be his greatest rivals, men from both parties. It took all his determination, empathy, and leadership to hold this group together, but eventually he forged them into a team of deeply devoted colleagues.

This makes him an excellent example of a good teamplayer, too. I found an even more striking example, though, in the story of FDR. After an attack of polio left him crippled in a wheelchair, he assembled a small, intimate group of friends to be his advisers and co-workers. This team (which included his wife Eleanor) became an “extension of his body”, his “eyes and ears” where he couldn't go. From this nucleus, Roosevelt's team grew in proportion to his responsibilities. As Governor of New York, a special advisory committee of three professors brought him into contact with experts in any field he needed to learn about. But his finest hour, and one of the most inspiring stories of teamwork I know, came when he was elected as president.

Defeating the incumbent Herbert Hoover, FDR came to power in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. America's economy was in free fall: unemployment was at 25%, and thousands of banks had collapsed or were in imminent danger of doing so. As the backbone of the economy, the recovery of the banking system was of immediate and paramount importance. Accordingly, within hours of his inauguration, President Roosevelt set his new-formed cabinet the task of addressing the crisis. Within a day, he closed all banks nation-wide by executive order, imposing a week-long “bank holiday” to halt the tumble and give the administration time to come up with emergency legislation. Now, his team kicked into overdrive. Working around the clock, the president and his ministers consulted with bankers and governors, congressmen and officials to find a way forward. Before the week was out, they had drafted a bill and presented it to a special session of Congress. With both parties working in unison, it passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate in an astonishing, record-breaking nine hours.

The new law provided a framework to begin the long, slow climb out of the Depression. But it could only work if people trusted it, and if they renewed their trust in the banks enough to deposit their money again. Thus, Roosevelt's last act of his crazy first week in office was to speak to the people. In the first of his famous “fireside chats”, he addressed the nation by radio. Simply and personably, he explained “what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be”. And when the banks reopened the next day, the people responded—across the country, long queues of people waited not to take their money out of the banks, but to put it back in. The tide had turned.

The glowing examples of FDR's fireside chat or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address mark them out as gifted communicators. But although Teddy Roosevelt and LBJ perhaps aren't primarily remembered for their great speeches, they too knew how to connect with people. Each of these four presidents knew the importance of good communication. They could reach out to people and touch them; inform, persuade, and inspire individuals and societies. And this, together with their character and teamwork, made them leaders.

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This is what the book showed me. Although I have read many books on leadership (and I heartily recommend reading a more systematic book too, if you're interested in the subject), Goodwin's “Lessons from the Presidents” brings theory to life by simply looking at the lives of these four great leaders. They were four men who made a difference—four men who knew how to leverage their own gifts and those of others, who weren't perfect but who worked hard to make the world just a little better. Because, as was said of FDR: “his general attitude was that the people mattered.”

Tagged as politics, history, leadership, books

Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Daniel Vedder.
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