A Book to Soothe the Soul in These Turbulent Times

By Michael Anderson

I have always been fascinated by the American presidency. In college and adulthood I began to read about all the presidents and their leadership styles. One of my favorite historian/authors is Doris Kearns Goodwin. This review is about her latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times,  which focuses on four of my favorite presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

As many of you know, Goodwin has previously written extensively about these four men. But given the turbulent times we are living through, with Trumpism troubling many of our souls, it helps ease the pain to read about the positive leadership styles of earlier presidents in our country’s history.

Goodwin’s book, a fascinating read, is divided into three sections: “Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership,” “Adversity and Growth,” and “The Leader and the Times: How They Led.”

The latter section, which I will focus on here, offers  a series of case studies about each president and the major challenges of their times. For Lincoln, it was the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. For Theodore Roosevelt, the coal strike of 1902 and the consolidation of corporate wealth. For Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Great Depression, and for Johnson, the fight for the Civil and Voting Rights Acts.

Goodwin describes Lincoln’s leadership style as a combination of transactional and transformational—two seemingly antithetical types identified by scholars who study leadership. “Transactional leaders operate pragmatically. They appeal to the self interest of their followers, use quid pro quos, bargains, trades, and rewards to solicit support and influence the behavior of their followers.”

Transformational leaders, on the other hand, inspire followers to identify with something larger than themselves—the organization, the community, the region, the country—and finally, to the more abstract identification with the country’s ideals. They call for sacrifice in the pursuit of moral principles and higher goals, validating such altruism by looking beyond the present moment to frame a future worth striving for.

While Lincoln used both leadership styles, Goodwin says, the transformational aspect enabled him to get universal northern support for the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent adoption of the 13th Amendment to free the slaves. In short, he was able to “put ambition for the collective interest above self interest.”

The second case study examines how Theodore Roosevelt managed the Great Coal Strike of 1902. His creative handling of what was viewed as the “most formidable deadlock in the history of the country” demonstrated his groundbreaking crisis-management skills. The challenge Roosevelt faced was the remarkable fact that neither legal nor historical precedent warranted presidential intervention to manage any aspect of that crisis. Roosevelt looked at the strike not as a private quarrel between the mine owners and the miners, but as a conflict in which public interests were directly involved.

With the coal strike settled, Roosevelt grasped the historical moment that signaled the clear emergence of a domestic purpose for his young administration: to restrain the rampant consolidation of corporate wealth that developed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the third president who used a combination of personal and political leadership skills to accomplish what Goodwin referred to as “turnaround leadership.” Goodwin maintained that to deal with the Great Depression, Roosevelt knew that there would have to be three lines of attack. “First, the feelings of helplessness, impotence,and accelerating panic had to be reversed before any legitimate recovery could commence; then, without delay, the financial collapse had to be countered; and finally, over time, the economic and social structure had to be reformed.”  

The steps FDR took during the first 100 days of his administration to stem the immediate banking crisis set in motion a turnaround that would forever alter the relationship between the government and the people.  Roosevelt’s gift of communication proved the vital instrument of his success in developing a common mission, clarifying problems, mobilizing action, and earning the people's trust. “His faith never foundered,” Goodwin writes, “that if the people were taken into the confidence of the government and received a full and truthful statement of what was happening, they would generally choose the right course. This reciprocal connection between Roosevelt and the people he served lay at the heart of his leadership.”

After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson set out to pay tribute to him by working to address the essential items on Kennedy’s domestic agenda: the civil rights bill designed to end segregation in the South and a tax cut intended to stimulate the economy.   “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory,” Johnson said, “than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

Between the moral force of the civil rights movement and Johnson’s skillful use of the bully pulpit, a consensus was built that paved the way for passage of the bill on July 2, 1964. Johnson used what Goodwin called visionary leadership to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare, and a tax reduction.

Johnson's most eloquent moment as president came when he delivered a speech before Congress on a Monday night a week after the incident in Selma, Ala., in which scores of civil rights activists were beaten. I remember watching him speak that night and despite my youth I knew he was saying something important. This is what he had to say:

“There is no Negro problem.There is no southern problem.There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

“There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights. There is only the issue of human rights. But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

This is one of the finest speeches I have ever encountered, right up there with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.         

This book soothed my soul. I know in my heart of hearts that there are leaders in this country who possess the kinds of transformational leadership skills that we desperately need to offset the Donald Trump presidency. Some of those individuals will emerge, like my four heroes in this book, to help us identify with something larger than ourselves for the common good.

(For more on this theme, I also highly recommend “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” by John Meacham.)