Book looks at four presidents and their leadership abilities

“Leadership: In Turbulent Times” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Depression = serious clinical depressions, “the black dog” as Churchill named it and as experienced by four noted presidents of the United States. 

What is the connection between that miserable state of mind and the active successful ability to lead by: 

• Abraham Lincoln – devastating poverty.

• Theodore Roosevelt – deaths of two close family members on the same day.

• Franklin Roosevelt – extensive and badly treated polio.

• Lyndon Johnson – the sudden elevation to the presidency after months of hated Vice-presidency.

 The two mental states – deep depression and active brilliant leadership – sound like dead opposites. How could they be experienced by each of those four notable leaders?

As the writer, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us each man experienced dreadful physical, social or emotional sadnesses, and each overcame them to end up as strikingly successful leaders. The descriptions of how these exceptional men led are outstanding … as anyone who reads anything by Goodwin will attest. Can you learn from this book how to lead? Not really. That has to be a combination of what is within, pieces of bad luck, the ability to overcome it, and on top of it all the skill to shake it off and to lead. 

Perhaps the description of Franklin Roosevelt’s ability to overcome major pain and disability is the most outstanding. It would have been so easy for him to sink back into the softness of wealth, the already established adoration of his family – especially of his mother – but somehow the opposite happened. 

Perhaps the most psychologically unusual is the emergence of Lyndon Johnson from the depression of being the vice president to a man he could not connect with, a role he hated, a position called no better than “a pitcher of warm spit.” Most individuals would have felt guilty and helpless when Kennedy was shot – not Johnson! 

All men emerged as leaders. All four overcame handicapping of various sorts and rose to remarkable heights. And the book itself stands out as a success of its own. 

Goodwin writes a description of each man’s sorrows, and then launches into a quite different subject: the segments of leadership as developed by her brilliant mind and her high quality of writing:

The chapter titles in the section The Leader and the Times: How They Led are:

• Transformational Leadership: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

• Crisis Management: Theodore Roosevelt and the Coal Strike.

• Turnaround Leadership: Franklin Roosevelt and the Hundred Days.

• Visionary Leadership: Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights.

At first this latter, secondary passage seems less absorbing than the lives of the four, but shortly it becomes brilliantly conceived and told. I salute Doris Kearns Goodwin, and I hope that you will too.

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