Leadership: In Turbulent Times
Doris Kearns Goodwin
A finely developed sense of timing—knowing when to wait and when to act—would remain in Lincoln’s repertoire of leadership skills the rest of his life.
“They say I tell a great many stories,” Lincoln told a friend. “I reckon I do; but I have learned from long experience that plain people, take them as they run, are more easily influenced through the medium of a broad and humorous illustration than any other way.” As
Leaders in every field, Roosevelt later wrote, “need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”
Yet, however dissimilar their upbringings, books became for both Lincoln and Roosevelt “the greatest of companions.” Every day for the rest of their lives, both men set aside time for reading, snatching moments while waiting for meals, between
visitors, or lying in bed before sleep.
Hardship quickened Abraham Lincoln’s self-reliance. Early on, he revealed a number of traits associated with leadership—ambition, motivation, resoluteness, language skills, storytelling gifts, sociability.
Theodore Roosevelt came later to the sense of himself as a leader, though others had clearly seen flashes of a unique nature—a remarkable willpower, intellectual vitality, irrepressible liveliness, wide-ranging interests, and a growing gratification connecting with people from different
backgrounds and stations in life.
At the age of twenty-eight, when both Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt had already evidenced striking leadership attributes, Franklin had not impressed the partners of his law firm with either his native intelligence, his work ethic, or his sense of purpose.
“The surest way to be happy,” Eleanor wrote in an essay at school,
Scholars who have studied the development of leaders have situated resilience, the ability to sustain ambition in the face of frustration, at the heart of potential leadership growth. “Why some people are able to extract wisdom from experience, and others are not,” Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas write, remains a critical question.
He studied philosophy, astronomy, science, political economy, history, literature, poetry, and drama. He struggled to work out mathematical theorems and proofs.
From his earliest years, when unable to understand what someone had said, he would turn the phrases over in his mind, battering his brow against them until he could capture their meaning.
Neither a smoker nor a drinker, Lincoln nevertheless commanded respect and attention with his never-ending stream of stories, whether the crowd was ten, fifty, or several hundred.
Mr. Lincoln’s eloquence was of the higher type, which produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself.”
The answer lay in the long period of work, creative introspection, research, and grinding thought that emerged in the wake of his dispiriting time in Congress and his failure to secure the high-ranking position he thought he deserved after sustained party politicking. From that crucible of self-doubt had come an accelerated striving, a self-willed intellectual, metaphysical, and personal growth. Never again would he assume that his side of the aisle held a monopoly on righteousness; never again would he deploy satire as a means to vindictively humiliate another.
The way Lincoln had learned to use language, the collective story he told, and the depth of his conviction marked a turning point in his reputation as both a man and a leader.
“A great storyteller will always be rooted in the people,” essayist Walter Benjamin writes. “It is granted to him to reach back to a whole lifetime,” culling from “his own experience” as well as “the experience of others” to unfold narratives that provide counsel, advice, and direction. Such storytellers are “teachers and sages,” he remarked. “Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom.” This was the leadership voice Abraham Lincoln had developed during his long waiting period.
“If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do and how to do it.”
Lincoln’s victory was due predominantly to his leadership skills—his shrewd comprehension of the lay of the land, growing confidence in his own judgment and intuition, unmatched work ethic, rhetorical abilities, equable nature, and elevated ambition. He never allowed his ambition to consume his kindheartedness or to modify his allegiance to the antislavery cause.
by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
His expectation of and belief in a smooth, upward trajectory, either in life or in politics, was gone forever.
If a person focused too much on a future that could not be controlled, he would become, Roosevelt acknowledged, too “careful, calculating, cautious in word and act.”
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,”
He would view each position as a test of character, effort, endurance, and will. He would keep nothing in reserve for some will-o-the-wisp future. Rather, he would regard each job as a pivotal test, a manifestation of his leadership skills.
Hit the ground running; consolidate control; ask questions of everyone wherever you go; manage by wandering around; determine the basic problems of each organization and hit them head-on; when attacked, counterattack; stick to your guns; spend your political capital to reach your goals; and then when your work is stymied or done, find a way out.
Any man who has been successful, Roosevelt repeatedly said, has leapt at opportunities chance provides.
Franklin Roosevelt’s ordeal provides the most clear-cut paradigm of how a devastating crucible experience can, against all expectation and logic, lead to significant growth, intensified ambition, and enlarged gifts for leadership.
use the power he accumulated to better the lives of others.
“You have to realize that a politician—a good one—is a strange duck,” Johnson told campaign worker Joe Phipps. “Anyone who periodically has to get down on hands and knees to beg voters to prove they love him by giving him their vote is really sick. Depending on how obsessed he is, he could be very, very sick. . . . Try to think of me as a seriously ill, dear relative or friend who needs all the care, compassion, comfort and love he can get in order to get well, knowing that in time he will get well. The illness . . . won’t come back till the next election rolls around.”
“The way you get ahead in the world, you get close to those that are the heads of things,”
“Time is the most valuable thing you have; be sure you spend it well”
Regardless of one’s impressive title, power without purpose and without vision was not the same thing as leadership.
“We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”
Lincoln created a team of independent, strong-minded men, all of whom were more experienced in public life, better educated, and more celebrated than he.
Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction.
Gather firsthand information, ask questions.
Find time and space in which to think.
Exhaust all possibility of compromise before imposing unilateral executive power.
Anticipate contending viewpoints.
“Every one likes a compliment,” Lincoln observed; everyone needs praise for the work they are doing.
Refuse to let past resentments fester; transcend personal vendettas.
Out of that humiliation, however, came a powerful self-scrutiny on Lincoln’s part, a savage desire to improve himself. He
Set a standard of mutual respect and dignity; control anger.
When angry at a colleague, Lincoln would fling off what he called a “hot” letter, releasing all his pent wrath. He would then put the letter aside until he cooled down and could attend the matter with a clearer eye.
Such forbearance set an example for the team.
Shield colleagues from blame.
In the end, it was Lincoln’s character—his consistent sensitivity, patience, prudence, and empathy—that inspired and transformed every member of his official family. In this paradigm of team leadership, greatness was grounded in goodness.
And yet, beneath Lincoln’s tenderness and kindness, he was without question the most complex, ambitious, willful, and implacable leader of them all.
Maintain perspective in the face of both accolades and abuse.
Put ambition for the collective interest above self-interest.
So surely did Lincoln midwife this process of social transformation that we look back at the United States before Abraham Lincoln and after him.
“The labor problem,” he comprehended, “had entered a new phase” in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. “Great financial corporations, doing a nation-wide and even a world-wide business, had taken the place of the smaller concerns of an earlier time. The old familiar, intimate relations between employer and employee were passing. A few generations before, the boss had known every man in his shop.” By contrast, Roosevelt surmised, it was unlikely that any but a random coal miner had ever laid eyes on the Reading Railroad president, much less befriended him.
Frame the narrative.
“It is never well to take drastic action,” he liked to say, “if the result can be achieved with equal efficiency in less drastic fashion.”
“The remarkable thing about him,” California senator Hiram Johnson observed of Franklin Roosevelt, “was his readiness to assume responsibility and his taking that responsibility with a smile.” If the new president had long since learned to make himself appear confident in order to become confident, might not the characteristic uplifted tilt of his head, the sparkle of his eye, his dazzling smile, and his assured, calm voice soothe and embolden the fragile nerves of the country at large? In a time of ubiquitous loss and uncertainty, such a halcyon projection was no small gift to the people of America.
Lyndon Johnson, like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, knew that people were “more easily influenced” by stories “than any other way,” that stories were remembered far longer than facts and figures.
Give stakeholders a chance to shape measures from the start. “My experience in the NYA,” Johnson recalled, “taught me that when people have a hand in shaping projects, these projects are more likely to be successful than the ones simply handed down from the top.”