Leadership in Turbulent Times

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Published by Simon & Schuster, Sept. 18, 2018, 473 pages, hard cover – $30

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a nutshell: To determine the makeup of a strong leader, writer Doris Kearns Goodwin delves into the lives of presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

Who is it for? General audiences, those interested in American history.

Author quote: “Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation.”

Defining what makes a strong leader is not an exact science. When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin takes on identifying the foundation of leadership with four U.S. presidents as examples, the end result is likely to be thought-provoking. Goodwin has written books on presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), and Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) and served as Johnson’s biographer after his presidency.

Goodwin’s idea is to compare and contrast the elements of each of the four presidents and then come up with a basis that can be used for those involved in or studying leadership.

Using the detailed writing style familiar to her, Goodwin first looks at the formative years of each president. Each has a divergent background and acquire political ambition for different reasons. She notes that Lincoln idolized George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt emulated Lincoln, FDR patterned his political career after his cousin Theodore, and LBJ worked for and admired FDR.

Lincoln quickly emerges as the outlier of the group coming from a childhood of poverty and obscurity to first run for office at the age of 23. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were born into affluence, but take divergent paths that somehow land them in New York State politics. Johnson grew up around politics, with his father serving in state government.

In the book’s second section, “Adversity and Growth,” each president deals with personal obstacles to advance themselves. Johnson suffers an early senate campaign defeat that almost ends his political career, FDR is diagnosed with polio, Theodore Roosevelt loses his mother and wife on the same day, and Lincoln, as a political outsider, has multiple hurdles to overcome.

The third section of “Leadership in Turbulent Times” examines the key points where each president rises to the occasion in historically pivotal situations that would define their presidencies. For Lincoln, it’s his decision to work with his cabinet, wrestling with what would become the Emancipation Proclamation. This occurs along with a long war that saps his morale and sends him into bouts of depression.

Theodore Roosevelt takes office after the assassination of President William McKinley and quickly has to deal with a national coal strike that threatens to cripple the economy. FDR takes office during the depths of the Great Depression, which requires him to act quickly to save the U.S. financial system. LBJ is thrust into office after President John F. Kennedy is slain by a Dallas gunman in 1963. These trying circumstances reveal Johnson’s ability to see what he believes is best for his country, moving forward with Kennedy’s civil rights legislation.

Looking at the lives of these remarkable presidents through the lens of leadership is difficult to summarize with a clear set of guidelines. Each has an awareness that it’s imperative to use the office of the presidency not for personal gain, but to truly improve the lives of the constituency for which they serve. Goodwin also points out in the book’s epilogue that Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and LBJ are aware on some level of their lasting legacies, yet all also ponder the regret of wanting to do more.

“Leadership in Turbulent Times” may not provide the requisite set of leadership steps that a typical business book does, but Goodwin’s well-detailed, well-written work is certainly a joy to read.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution based (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.