A leadership road map from four American presidents

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a world-renowned presidential historian, public speaker, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Her seventh book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, was published in September 2018 and became an instant New York Times best-seller. A culmination of Goodwin’s five-decade career of studying the American presidents — focusing on Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson — the book provides a road map for leadership and life. 

Goodwin is a keynote speaker at the American Public Power Association’s National Conference, June 7–12 in Austin, Texas.

In Leadership in Turbulent Times, you note that on their paths to leadership, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt had to overcome dramatic setbacks in their personal and private lives. How important is it for aspiring leaders to have an inner resiliency that can help them successfully meet life’s inevitable challenges?

Overcoming adversity is an extraordinarily important trait for a leader. If you’ve been through a serious setback and you’ve come through it successfully, it puts into perspective that life has its sorrows and its joys. The true test of character is how you meet those inevitable ups and downs. The paralysis from polio that crippled FDR’s body expanded his mind and sensibilities. He seemed less arrogant, less smug, less superficial, more focused, more complex, more interesting. No longer belonging to his old world in the same way, he came to empathize with the poor and the underprivileged, with people to whom fate had dealt a difficult hand.

When people asked FDR, “How can you deal with all these pressures that you’re under as president?” he laughed and answered, “If you have spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, everything else seems easy.”

The power industry is undergoing significant changes, testing utility leaders in new and sometimes unpredictable ways. What advice would you give to utility executives who are looking to be successful leaders in changing times, and what lessons can they take from leaders such as Lincoln, Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Theodore Roosevelt?

I am often asked which of our past presidents might be best suited for our current, changing times. No doubt it would be Theodore Roosevelt, for the changes at the turn of the 20th century most mirror ours today. The Industrial Revolution had shaken up the economy, much as the technological revolution and globalization have redefined our lives today. Big companies were swallowing up small companies. New inventions had quickened the pace of life to a frenzied degree. People in rural areas felt alienated. A menacing gap had opened between the rich and the poor.

Roosevelt had the capacity to adapt, change, and grow in office because he grew to know his limitations, because he developed the humility to acknowledge his mistakes. Changing times require an agility, an adaptability, patience, understanding, and timing.

In Team of Rivals, you detail how Lincoln handpicked and successfully led a cabinet that included several of his political opponents. How important is it for a leader to think outside of the box when he or she selects a team?

It is critically important for a leader to surrounded one’s self with people, including rivals, who have their own strong egos and high ambitions; who feel free to question authority; and who are unafraid to offer differing opinions. For example, Abraham Lincoln brought Salmon Chase into his cabinet as treasury secretary and kept him there for three years, knowing full well that Chase craved the presidency with every fiber of his being and knowing that Chase was undermining him all the time with cabinet members, Congress, and the rest of the country. So long as he was doing a good job at his post, that was more important than personal feelings, Lincoln would say.

But the idea is not just to put rivals in power — the point is that leaders must choose the best and most able people for their teams for the good of the company. When Lincoln came to power, the nation was in peril, and he had the intelligence, and the self-confidence, to know that he needed the best people by his side, people who were leaders in their own right and who were very aware of their own strengths. That’s an important insight, whether you’re the leader of a country or the CEO of a company.

If you had to pick one key attribute of a successful leader, what would it be and why?

I think the most underrated leadership skill is the ability to replenish energy and creativity. When you look at the statistics of 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.

Finally, the interview wouldn’t be complete without a question about your beloved Red Sox. How do you think they will do this year?

Last year’s success is certainly a hard act to follow, but it would be great if they could return to the playoffs and the World Series again this year. Even if they win many more games than they lose, that’s good enough for me at my age — especially since this century has already seen four World Series victories. I’m not much for predictions, but I know we have a great team!