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Mar 03, 2019 05:54PM ● By Michael Harris


Leadership in Turbulent Times


Where does leadership come from when it’s needed most? What attributes does it take to be a great leader? Does history somehow find the right leader at the right place and time? Or, does the right leader simply rise to the occasion?


For answers, I turned to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of numerous books about our presidents and leadership. She brought Abraham Lincoln to life in Team of Rivals, a testament to his leadership during the Civil War. Rather than pick a cabinet of “yes men,” Lincoln chose men who openly opposed him in the 1860 presidential election. He became a team with his rivals during this crucial time in American history.


Goodwin’s latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, presents a retrospective of Lincoln and three of her other favorite presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Using her vast resources, Goodwin details the leadership qualities they demonstrated that served our nation in our most turbulent times. Unquestionably, Lincoln, TR, and FDR rank among our greatest presidents, but why LBJ? What did he have in common with these great men that warrants his inclusion? Like me, you will be surprised to learn how he fits into this auspicious group.

Goodwin looks at all four of them at three crucial periods in their lives, when certain events honed their leadership skills. We learn the early influences that shaped these young men of ambition, the “traumas that tempered their flaws and bred resilience,” thus, shaping their character, and how each became the leader our nation needed when the time came.


They had common traits - uncanny persistence, inspiration, surpassing intelligence, and great storytelling - and are linked in other ways. Lincoln left the Whig Party to help form the new Republican Party and champion its efforts to end slavery. TR was Lincoln’s re-embodiment as a progressive Republican trying to help the poor. FDR was a distant cousin of TR and shared his progressive views. As a young congressman and senator, LBJ was a protégé of FDR.


The obstacles they overcame were different, but each helped form a great leader. Lincoln was a poor but ambitious “rail-splitter” who overcame deep depression to lead our country through the most perilous time in its history. TR was a sickly young man who overcame asthma and the death of his mother and wife within a day. FDR overcame polio, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. LBJ nearly died of a heart attack and suffered major depression after losing his first race for the Senate.

Lincoln’s great leadership skills were seen in his efforts to heal our broken nation during the Civil War. If not for an assassin’s bullet, Lincoln spirit and love for his fellow man could have led to reconciliation between the North and the South, much as his reconciliation with his ”team of rivals” helped end the Civil War. And perhaps civil rights legislation would have passed in the 1860s rather than a century later, in the 1960s. Imagine how that could have changed are country’s history.


TR used the talent he gained as a frontiersman and Rough Rider to settle the Coal Strike of 1902. The mine owners, who also owned the railroads, were recalcitrant in their efforts to break the miners’ union, which struck for better wages and working conditions. By dealing with each side separately and only then bringing them together, TR was able to settle the strike with minimal bloodshed.


FDR would not be deterred in his numerous plans to end the Great Depression. In one brilliant move, he started the Civilian Conservation Corps, which solved several problems. It put hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men to work managing our national forests while most of the money they earned was sent home to help their families survive the Depression.

When LBJ became president, he was determined to see John F. Kennedy’s dream of expanded civil rights and voting rights become a reality. The skills he learned in Congress put him in a unique position to get congressional leaders of both parties to draft civil rights and voting rights legislation, which did more to bring equality to minority citizens than anything since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It’s unfortunate that LBJ was not able to use those same skills to end the Vietnam War sooner.

These men are also linked by their love of education and history. Each asked, “Who are we and where are we going?” Their leadership strength depended on their link to the ordinary people they’ve represented. Each was a “moral compass” united by their sense of humanity, purpose, and wisdom.


The leadership skills these men demonstrated will help aspiring leaders no matter their field. Goodwin’s book is a must-read for anyone who fights for a cause.