President’s Day Special: Time With Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest  is a History Channel special about George Washington

I absolutely adore Doris Kearns Goodwin.

And who better to talk about on President’s Day than one of our nation’s foremost presidential historians?

My admiration for Doris Kearns Goodwin goes way back, I love her books, enjoy her TV appearances and anxiously await her next work—which now includes film making (Check out “Washington” on The History Channel).

So when she came to FAU, we gobbled up tickets, got lucky and ended up in the front row in what was a sold out house. At age 77, after a Pulitzer Prize, Carnegie Medal and several best-selling books, Doris Kearns Goodwin is a rock star. That alone ought to make you optimistic about America.

Ms. Goodwin was in Boca to talk about her new book “Leadership in Turbulent Times.”
While the book is not about our current turbulent time, the great thing about history is that if we care to look, the past holds lessons for our present and our future.

“Leadership in Turbulent Times” is about Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson—presidents who Goodwin calls her “guys.”

When writing about her subjects, Goodwin “lives” with them so to speak; reading their letters, speeches and diaries and any relevant document that has to do with their lives and times. It does make one wonder how future historians will navigate our digital times. Goodwin muses that perhaps they will comb through emails (if they are kept) and tweets. It is an interesting question.

Regardless, in writing about FDR, TR, LBJ and Lincoln we as Americans can learn what it takes to be an effective leader. Not a perfect leader or a mistake free leader—they simply don’t exist, but a leader who makes an impact.

What makes Goodwin’s writing and speaking so interesting is she shares the “warts” (as she calls them) that all leaders have.

Lincoln lost several elections. He was almost comfortable with failure, but never gave up on winning.

FDR dealt with a Great Depression, a World War and a debilitating bout with polio. He built his upper body strength by crawling around for hours on the floor dragging his body.

LBJ’s legacy includes Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights and voting rights but also Vietnam. He told great tales, had boundless energy, won countless political fights but was broken by Vietnam, which inflicted untold damage on countless people.

Yes, all great leaders have warts. But they also have strengths that enable them to handle difficult times and leave a mark on the world.

Goodwin outlines six traits of great leaders. It’s a great list and very important to review as we vote in a few weeks for national and local candidates.

Here they are:

Empathy-–a feel for other people and an ability to identify with other points of view. Empathy is an essential trait of any successful leader and any successful human being, she added.

Resilience—an ability to learn and persevere when difficulties arise. In public life, in any leadership role, you are bound to get hit with a hay maker punch or two (maybe even more) but great leaders get up, dust themselves off and find a way forward. They are resilient and they get better as a result.

Communication—a leader’s ability to communicate can make all the difference. Leaders frame issues, raise important questions and are able to articulate controversial positions and why they must make some difficult decisions to benefit the greater good.

Openness to growth—an ability to evolve as you learn and as you gain experience. If you already think you know it all or are the smartest guy or gal in the room, you are off track. And you will fail as a leader. Leadership is a growth experience, but only if you are open to learning.

Impulse control- Sometimes knowing what not to say is as important as what a leader does say. Strong leaders know when to bite their tongue—and are better for it.

Relaxation—Our most iconic presidents knew that getting away from The White House could help them become better leaders. We need to balance our lives and find time to renew.

Pretty solid advice.

To these amazing traits,  I would add integrity, which is the basis for all leadership. Vision doesn’t hurt either.

What to watch for?
Narcissism, egomania, bullying, meanness and a need to win every argument. Leaders need to be able to let go—you win some, you lose some that’s the nature of life.

We can do worse than listen to our historians when we choose our present day leaders; that goes for the White House to City Hall.

I’ll stick with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wisdom any day.

 

Comments

  1. Kerry Koen says:

    I saw her last year when she spoke in Boca and what a treat to hear her speak from a perspective that few can claim. She worked for LBJ for a time and what an experience that must have been. My favorite portion was her discussion of TR and all he faced. Overall, as a country, we have been blessed with robust leaders in the most turbulent of times and we made it through to be come stronger …. and wiser. I hope the same holds true for our current situation.

    • Jeff Perlman says:

      She said LBJ told great stories, a few of which were actually true.
      As for TR, you could see her respect for him when she spoke of his abilities and appetites.

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