Leadership | Doris Kearns Goodwin

Summary of: Leadership: In Turbulent Times
By: Doris Kearns Goodwin


Prepare to embark on a fascinating journey through the lives of four transformational U.S. presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s absorbing book ‘Leadership: In Turbulent Times’, you’ll learn how these leaders emerged from divergent backgrounds to ultimately shape the course of history. This summary uncovers the complex interplay of personal attributes, ambition, and adversity that influenced their leadership. By overcoming obstacles and forging their own paths, these monumental figures demonstrate that greatness is not a product of circumstance but rather a reflection of resilience, adaptability, and unwavering determination.

Leadership Beyond Circumstances

The book explores how the circumstances of great leaders differ, referencing Lincoln and Roosevelt as examples. It highlights that the keys to great leadership are not defined by one’s background.

Leadership is a complicated topic, and the notion that leaders are shaped by their circumstances is particularly intriguing. However, a thorough examination of Lincoln and Roosevelt’s lives suggests otherwise. Despite being born with a trust fund and receiving a formal education, Roosevelt’s climb to power was much easier than Lincoln’s self-made journey. Lincoln had to educate himself, borrowing books, and reading them without external support, despite the occasional resistance and destruction of these books by his father. When Roosevelt reached adulthood, he was already politically connected, recruited by the local Republican Party to run for the state assembly of New York.

The divergent experiences of these two presidents reveal that the keys to great leadership must lie beyond their circumstances. It takes more than a wealthy background, access to an extensive family library, or political entitlement to become a great leader. It takes perseverance, determination, and hard work to gain respect, to have one’s merits recognized, and to build relationships with others. So, while Lincoln was born in poverty, and Roosevelt to a life of luxury, both of them share the same traits of great leaders. The question now is how we can recognize and develop these vital characteristics to succeed as leaders, no matter our circumstances.

Personal Characteristics of Great Leaders

Personal characteristics do not hold the key to becoming a great leader, according to influential presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and Lincoln. They had vastly different temperaments, physical traits, and mental characteristics that shaped their leadership style. For instance, Roosevelt grew up in a warm and nurturing environment that gave him an optimistic outlook on life. Lincoln, on the other hand, struggled with melancholy and feeling at odds with his lofty ambitions and lowly circumstances. In terms of physical traits, Lincoln was tall, strong, and athletic, while Theodore Roosevelt was plagued by frequent illness and asthma. Lastly, while Lincoln had to put a considerable amount of effort into memorizing things, Theodore Roosevelt had a photographic memory. Therefore, rather than relying on personal characteristics, these influential leaders suggest that we should look elsewhere to become great leaders.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Transformational Presidents

Great leaders are often portrayed as larger-than-life figures with almost superhuman strength. However, a closer look at the transformational presidents clarifies that they were undoubtedly gifted, but they were also human, with remarkable strengths and weaknesses.

Abraham Lincoln learnt through patient observation and waited on the sidelines to observe before getting involved. Contrastingly, Theodore Roosevelt had a gung-ho approach and aggressively interrogated his colleagues about how the assembly worked, often violating procedural rules. Franklin Roosevelt had the flexibility of bypassing regulations if he felt it justified the outcome. Lyndon B. Johnson was masterful at using cunning procedural tactics in Congress but also used them to conceal escalating defense costs incurred in ramping up the Vietnam War.

Transformational presidents’ strengths were varied, much like their circumstances and personal characteristics. Their strengths also had a double-edged nature that could turn into weaknesses.

Ambition and Leadership

Ambition is a crucial trait for effective leadership, as demonstrated by the contrasting paths of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Despite Lincoln’s impoverished background, his ambition allowed him to overcome challenges and pursue education and law. In contrast, Roosevelt’s privileged upbringing could have stifled his ambition, but instead, his physical limitations sparked a thirst for adventure that drove him to explore and lead. These examples show how ambition can drive individuals to achieve greatness despite adversity, and is a necessary trait for successful leadership.

Leadership lessons from LBJ

The book highlights how Lyndon B. Johnson’s successes and failures as a president were largely influenced by a sense of greater national purpose. Johnson’s strength in clever procedural tactics led to his promotion of Civil Rights, the creation of Medicare, and the Voting Rights Act. However, his escalation of the Vietnam War highlighted his lack of higher purpose, leading to disastrous consequences. The importance of a sense of greater national purpose is a crucial element in the transformational presidents’ ascendence to leadership.

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