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Want to be a great leader? Pulitzer-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has tips, directly from U.S. presidents

The timing of these lessons on leadership couldn’t be better.

Want to be a great leader? Pulitzer-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has tips, directly from U.S. presidents
[Photo: courtesy MasterClass]

“What I’m going to do in this class is to think about what makes a good leader, what kinds of lessons we can learn from leaders . . . and their failures,” presidential historian and author of “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” Doris Kearns Goodwin says in the intro to her new MasterClass, U.S. Presidential History and Leadership. “As Teddy Roosevelt said, ‘human nature is the most important thing to understand if you’re a leader.'”

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Kearns, a former Harvard professor and a legendary storyteller, explores the stories and moments that shaped the presidential careers of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—but doesn’t just leave the lessons there. Kearns Goodwin masterfully weaves history out of the books and into applications for our everyday lives, whether you’re a business owner, manager, public servant, or just trying to learn to be a better person.

The 15-part class contains practical lessons that just about anyone can glean valuable, actionable, knowledge from. In Lesson 3 (“More Important Than IQ: Emotional Intelligence”) Kearns Goodwin drops Abe Lincoln’s little-known trick for dealing with frustration and unproductive emotions directed at others. Lincoln called them “hot letters”—and it involves writing a letter to the person you are angry with, but not sending it. During Kearns Goodwin’s exit interview with President Obama in 2016, he also admitted to using Lincoln’s “hot letter” strategy to manage unproductive frustration.

In Lesson 5 (“Forging Key Partnerships”) Kearns Goodwin touches on the massive importance of prioritizing diversity, saying, “When you’re building a team, one of the most important things is to know where your own weaknesses are . . . and what strengths you need to complement those weaknesses. What experiences are you lacking, and what experiences can you bring into the team?” She emphasizes the importance of having the confidence to not feel threatened by people who will argue with you, challenge your assumptions, and debate what’s going on rather than echoing like-minded ideas.

Kearns Goodwin draws on moments in history to act as stories that we can remember and apply to our own experiences. In the lesson, “Making Informed Decisions,” she details how building consensus and healing partisan division was exceptionally important to Lyndon Johnson as he was seeking to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson personally credited (Republican) Minority Leader Everett Dirksen for the bill’s passing. As Kearns Goodwin puts it, “he realized that Dirksen—just like he himself, Lyndon Johnson—cared about how history would remember him.” This approach created bipartisanship for the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, NPR, PBS, immigration reform, and other historic accomplishments. The takeaway for our everyday lives: don’t seek the lowest common denominator—set your goals, and work to bring consensus to support it.

In other lessons, Kearns Goodwin shares different resources to aid her teaching—such as her late husband (presidential speech writer and adviser) Richard Goodwin’s “Great Society” speech. Along with the Class Workbook, the MasterClass feels more immersive than just sitting and watching a screen.

But don’t get me wrong: I could watch Kearns Goodwin all day. Throughout the entire MasterClass (which is only about three hours long total), Kearns Goodwin brings an uncommon relatability to huge figures in American history and teaches in an engaging, inspiring, and useful manner. Would you expect anything less from a Pulitzer-winning former Harvard professor?

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