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Doris Kearns Goodwin knows what presidential leadership looks like

The presidential historian talks about her new book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, and finding inspiration from previous Oval Office occupants.

Doris Kearns Goodwin knows what presidential leadership looks like
Doris Kearns Goodwin, at home in Concord, Massachusetts, has been studying presidents for more than four decades. [Photo: Jessie English; Makeup: Maryelle O’Rourke at Maryelle Artistry]

Historian and political scientist Doris Kearns Goodwin won the Pulitzer Prize for No Ordinary Time, a biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She wrote the definitive book on Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. Now, with Leadership: In Turbulent Times, out September 18, she reveals the management secrets of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Here, she talks with Adam Grant—the Wharton organizational psychologist, author (Give and Take, Originals), and podcast host (TED’s WorkLife)—about what we can learn from these presidents about storytelling, crisis management, and having a life beyond work.

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Fast Company: What motivated you to write the book?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I’d been speaking to a lot of business audiences about Team of Rivals, but also about Franklin Roosevelt and Johnson, and I realized that I was talking about leadership. I started looking at [these presidents] through that lens, and I felt like I was finding them anew. This started five years ago. Obviously, I hadn’t thought of leadership in turbulent times as being as important as it is today. But, oh my gosh, we’re in turbulent times! I realize now that seeing these leaders who met the challenges of their times—which were worse than those of today—can provide us with lessons and solace.

FC: I think of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt as among the greatest presidents in history. Why did Johnson also make the cut?

DKG: Because of what [he helped accomplish for] civil rights, his vision with the Great Society, and his ability to deal with Congress on a bipartisan basis, which is so sorely lacking in these last decades. Clearly, that leadership was not translated to the war in Vietnam. He also instilled my interest in presidential history, when I was a 24-year-old White House fellow to him. I had been active in the anti–Vietnam War movement in graduate school, and [shortly after the fellowship began], an article I had written for The New Republic came out. The title was “How to Remove LBJ in 1968.” I thought he’d kick me out of the program, but instead he said, “If I can’t win her over, no one can.” I ended up working for him that year, stayed on, and then helped on his memoirs.

FC: What’s the most important lesson that business leaders can take from these presidents?

DKG: If I were to pick one, it would be the ability to speak to audiences with stories. [Take] Abraham Lincoln: While we celebrate his beautiful language, his speeches really worked because they were filled with stories and illustration. He believed people remembered anecdotes better than facts and figures. When he was young, he would listen as his father and the people who would come by his little log cabin told stories. He’d go to bed at night and try to translate those stories into [his] words, so he could then go out on the field the next day, stand on a tree stump—he’s like eight, nine years old—and entertain his friends.

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Each of these leaders was fortunate to live in a time when his particular kind of storytelling fit the age. Lincoln’s speeches were printed in full in newspapers; they could be read aloud all over the country. Teddy Roosevelt had this punchy way of speaking—”square deal,” “speak softly and carry a big stick”—that was perfect for the new newspaper age. FDR had the ideal voice for the radio age and a conversational, intimate style. People felt they were listening to him one-on-one. After he died, they felt they had lost a friend. Clarity, simplicity, humor—these people were experts.

FC: What leadership qualities are underrated?

DKG: These [presidents] had incredible challenges in front of them, and they all were able to find time to replenish their energy and creativity. When you look at the statistics on people today, it’s astonishing: Half of Americans aren’t using their vacation time; people fail to disconnect even when they are on vacation. And here you have Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, going to the theater 100 times. He said when he was in the theater, his mind could go back to Shakespeare and the War of the Roses, and he could forget for a few precious hours about the [Civil] War. FDR had a cocktail party every night where the rule was, you can’t talk about the war.

Teddy Roosevelt spent two hours every afternoon exercising. It could be a game of tennis or a wrestling match with his cabinet members. And then he took people on this hike in Rock Creek Park to the wooded cliffs where you couldn’t go around any obstacle, so you’d have to climb up rocks and down precipices. The French ambassador came on the walk wearing a suit. When he found himself at a stream, he thought it was over. Then Teddy said, “We will strip. We don’t want to get our things wet.” For the honor of France, the ambassador undressed and went across, but he left on his lavender kid gloves in case he met ladies on the other side.

FC: Does that mean we shouldn’t criticize presidents or CEOs for golfing?

DKG: We owe it to them to let them find some sort of balance between the work that, hopefully, they love and the need to get away from it to think, relax, and replenish.

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FC: There’s evidence that companies perform worse when their CEOs have better golf handicaps.

DKG: If you’re escaping because you don’t feel engaged, that’s a different thing.

FC: Is there a presidential trait that we overemphasize?

DKG: In some ways, academic intelligence. [Franklin Roosevelt] was self-assured, optimistic, buoyant, but he was a mediocre student. He did have an extraordinary, unique intelligence. He had a lifelong curiosity. He would bring in experts from the academic world and cross-examine them. That’s a kind of problem-solving intelligence.

FC: You wrote in Team of Rivals that Lincoln held daily office hours with ordinary citizens. Should business leaders hold office hours?

[Photo: Jessie English; Makeup: Maryelle O’Rourke at Maryelle Artistry]
DKG: In Lincoln’s days, there was no gate on the White House. You could just line up outside his office. It was terribly distracting, but [Lincoln] said, by listening to the stories of the people who came in wanting a clerkship or a postmastership, he got a feeling about where they were coming from. He said it was like his public opinion baths. He also went to the active battlefield more than a dozen times during the war to walk amid the soldiers and visit the wounded. He needed to hear how they were feeling about the conduct of the war.

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Teddy Roosevelt [would have ordinary people in his office]. He’d just stand up the whole time so that he could quickly move them toward the door. But there’s something about that spontaneous or informal relationship, where people can see your facial expressions, that matters. Johnson did that with the congressmen. In his first six months [as president], he had every single congressmen in groups of 30 to the White House for dinner. He would sit down and drink with these guys so that every one of them knew they had come to the White House and talked to him. That openness [can be] distracting. But if [presidents] can figure it out, then people in other leadership positions can, too.

FC: What behaviors should business leaders be careful not to emulate?

DKG: If you look at the importance of dealing with [your] team in an emotionally intelligent way, Johnson would seem to [do] the opposite. The people who worked for him [when he was the Texas state director of] the National Youth Administration [in 1935] said that he was really hard. If you had a cluttered desk, he thought it was a sign of disorganization. If you had a clean desk, it signified idleness. Somebody said if he caught you reading a letter from your mother or taking a crap, he’d say, “Son, can’t you try a little harder to do that on your own time?”

Nonetheless, his NYA program was considered the best in the country. How could that behavior lead to such a magnificent performance [by his team]? I think the answer is that he was always there before they arrived and stayed after they left. He was working harder than everyone. More importantly, they had a sense of pride. They knew they were joined together in an incredible new organization that promised to change the lives of thousands of people. And they knew his leadership was helping make that happen.

FC: First Ladies are an interesting case of leadership without authority. What can we learn from Eleanor Roosevelt?

DKG: She transformed what had been a ceremonial role into a real position. On his first day, Roosevelt announced that he was going to have a press conference. [Eleanor] held her own press conference that same day, but she made a rule that only female reporters could come. So all over the country, publishers had to hire their first female reporter. An entire generation of female journalists got their start because of her. She also traveled 200 days a year, checking on [Franklin’s] programs. She would talk to people and bring back anecdotes and stories. She was the first investigative-reporter First Lady. She offered an outside evaluation on the administration.

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FC: It’s so interesting that Roosevelt hid his paralysis from the nation. What does that say about presidential image crafting?

DKG: I wish that he had felt that the country would accept him as a leader, while knowing that he could not walk. But he wasn’t certain they were ready, so I’m not sure that I would go against his understanding of the country. He believed that he had the strength to be a leader despite the fact that he was a paraplegic, and he was right.

Most of the people in the country knew he had had polio, but they thought he could walk. He could appear to be walking if he had his braces locked in place and two strong arms, carrying him along, or if he had his crutches on, which nobody saw. What’s interesting is that people around him knew that he couldn’t walk on his own. The press were part of it, too. They never took a picture of him in his wheelchair. If a young photographer didn’t understand the code of honor [and tried to take a picture], they’d knock the camera out of his hands.

FC: What role does adversity play in creating a leader?

DKG: Roosevelt’s polio meant that he emerged much more warmhearted, with humility and more focus. What he would say is, If you’ve spent years trying to crawl up the stairs one by one, if you’ve celebrated when you could finally move one of your frozen toes, then you’ve got perspective on later problems.

FC: When Sheryl Sandberg and I were writing Option B, we grappled with this idea of post-traumatic growth. After hardship, many people gain new perspective. Do you have any insight on how that’s achieved?

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DKG: Teddy Roosevelt lost his wife and his mother on the same day [when he was 25]. He went to the Badlands to escape his depression by riding his horse 15 hours a day. He had an interesting reaction to the adversity. Before, he thought of his life as moving from one rung to another, up to the top, and he became a big star in the [New York] state legislature. But after seeing how fate had [gotten] in the way, he realized, I’m just going to take whatever job comes my way, where I think I can do good. When he came back from the Badlands, he became head of the [U.S.] Civil Service Commission and then [New York City] police commissioner. Then he joined the army, and that’s when he fully recognized his leadership qualities. Eventually, he became [New York] governor and vice president. It was a winding path to leadership, and it made him better because he had all these different horizontal experiences rather than a vertical one.

FC: What would Lincoln say in a 2020 campaign speech, if he were running?

DKG: What really interests me is thinking about which of these [presidents] would give a speech that would be relevant today. It would probably be Teddy Roosevelt. Think about where we were at the turn of the 20th century: The industrial revolution had shaken up the economy, immigrants were pouring in, cities were replacing towns. A gap was developing between the rich and the poor, and the social landscape was changing because of all these new inventions: the automobile, the telegraph, and the telephone. You had populist movements that called for restrictions on immigration, and the establishment worried about [giving] power to ordinary people.

Teddy was able to channel those emotions into positive, moderate reforms. Even his slogan would work today: “A square deal for the rich and the poor.” He was a fighter, but he understood that democracy would founder if people began to see each other as the other. He’d also be great at Twitter, with all his phrases: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He’d be perfect at that.


30-Second Bio: Doris Kearns Goodwin

Presidential first: Lyndon Johnson tapped Kearns Goodwin to help research and write his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point. She later drew from those experiences to write her first book, the 1976 biography-memoir, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.

Broken ceiling: A baseball fan, Kearns Goodwin became the first female journalist to enter the Red Sox locker room, in 1979. She also served as a consultant for Ken Burns’s PBS documentary Baseball.

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Pop-culture cachet: Kearns Goodwin had a cameo in TV’s American Horror Story: Roanoke, narrating a faux documentary. She also lent her voice to an episode of the Simpsons, as Lisa’s teacher. Her biography Team of Rivals became part of the basis for 2012’s Oscar-winning film Lincoln.

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