Sunday, October 14, 2018

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin was a very solid book on the formative experiences and leadership through difficult times provided by four great Presidents... Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.

Goodwin's previous books included ones on each of the four men and she constructed this one with three main sections, and chapters within on each man. The first section is on their early years, second on the dramatic reversals and challenges faced leading up to the Presidency, and third contained a case study for each on how they led while in the White House, with the following some of the things from all three sections of the book that stood out in relation to each person...

Abraham Lincoln grew up incredibly poor, but was a voracious reader and learner. He suffered a blow to his reputation while in his early thirties, feeling that he had failed to fulfill pledges made in getting elected to the Illinois legislature. From this place of depression, which he dealt with at recurring times, he rebuilt his life through his law practice, then reentered politics and became President in 1861 at fifty-two years old. The country was in turmoil at the time, with southern states passing resolutions to succeed from the Union and Lincoln led in a very methodical and patient way (with one example how he would write a letter to someone expressing anger with them, then put it in a drawer and never deliver it), but was very principled to his beliefs on the wrong of slavery. The case study from Goodwin is about his Emancipation Proclamation executive order freeing slaves in the states rebelling against the Union and she illustrates how Lincoln's leadership very much a combination of transactional and transformational approaches, both getting some people what they needed in exchange for support and inspiring others.

Theodore Roosevelt came from a respected and at least fairly well off family, but like Lincoln, worked hard and read voraciously. He entered public office in his twenties and then suffered the tragedy of having his mother and young wife die on the same day. From this grief, Roosevelt went out west, worked on a ranch he acquired and lifted himself from depression. Roosevelt then returned east and took whatever government jobs availed themselves to him, working at and learning from each. His aphorisms in the roles were to: hit the ground running, ask questions by wandering around, determine the basic problems and hit them head on, stick to your guns, and then know when it's time to get out. He served in various roles and then became President at forty-two when McKinley shot in 1901. The case study that Goodwin details is how Roosevelt dealt with the coal strike, something that greatly affected the nation and he set a precedent by getting involved in this dispute between labor and management. Like Lincoln, he paid great attention to timing and was methodical, but acted when needed, with his success in the conflict leading to what became known as the Square Deal, progressive reform around the relationship between management and labor.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had a very healthy childhood, but then had his father suffer a debilitating heart attack when he was eight years old. Franklin became a politician and in 1921 was struck by polio and paralyzed, which he reacted to with both a zeal and positive attitude, working hard to recover and have a joy in living. He went through a seven-year convalescence, running the Warm Spring rehabilitation center that helped many others along with himself, and then returned to public service, taking pretty much any job, even if it seemed below his station, figuring that he'd learn something there. He became Governor of New York around the time the Great Depression was starting and was elected as President in 1933 as the country becoming paralyzed, with people not working and banks failing. Goodwin details the Hundred Days, his reforms and striking of a balance between realism and optimism. He had the maxim to above all, try anything, and if it didn't work to change and do something new, and experimented with different social programs, shutting down the banks at a federal level and then reopened them when each deemed ready. Additionally, he had a great temperament, which came through in his fireside radio addresses to the nation, and his efforts in pulling the country out of the Depression helped set the stage for what was needed with the onset of WWII.

Lyndon Johnson early on showed a great deal of empathy for the poor, serving at a young age as principal of a school in an impoverished Texas community, and when he entered politics, was a consummate politician, hard driving and quick decision making, but who suffered failure when losing an election to the Senate that he was sure would be his. He over time regained his footing, won a seat in 1948, and was exceptional at working one on one with people and cajoling his way into the things he wanted. While in office, Johnson suffered a heart attack, almost died, and then reinvigorated himself, but with his quest for power around wanting to really accomplish something. He committed himself to the battle for civil rights and became Vice President under John F. Kennedy. After assuming the Presidency, Johnson focused on getting passed what Kennedy had begun and his strengths were very much suited to the work needed to get bills through the Senate, with the case study in the book detailing the masterful work Johnson did first getting tax cuts done, then civil rights, and other remarkable bills passed during the the 89th Congress.

Goodwin details well how each of the four men met great challenges with ambition and resilience, showing authentic leadership during times the country greatly needed it.